The Sky is the Limit – Altitude Training

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Over the past number of weeks we have looked at some of the most contemporary Sport Science topics in today’s sporting world, and this week we have another interesting entry. Altitude training is fast becoming a common training tool at the elite level in sport – this is in relation to both training exercises and injury rehabilitation. Yet what is the science behind altitude training, and how does it actually work? – Is it even really that effective at all? This article will look at these questions.Blog 32 image

1968 – The Olympic Games in Mexico City, Mexico, was the first sporting event to really see first-hand evidence of the effects of altitude on athletic performance as the athletes that had incorporated altitude exposure into their training easily outperformed the competition. In the years since the 1968 Olympics athletes have been setting new marks in all racing events. Whereas Russian scientists began experimenting with altitude training for their pilots in the 1940’s, it wasn’t until the early 1970’s that they turned their attention to endurance runners and subsequently introduced this technique into their Olympic Program once they realised that red blood cell stamina was increased and lasted for over 2 weeks. This was the first real introduction of altitude training into sport.

So what actually is Altitude Training? – Altitude training, commonly known as hypoxic training, involves exercising in, living in or otherwise breathing oxygen reduced air for the purpose of enhanced athletic performance, pre-acclimatization to altitude and/or physical wellness. Of course due to time constraints, travel may not be an option for some athletes so the creation of high altitudes can be obtained in science labs. At higher altitudes (usually 2500m +), lower atmospheric pressure creates thin air. When your body is exposed to “thin air,” it makes up for reduced oxygen levels by increasing the bloods oxygen-carrying capacity, as well as its ability to utilise that oxygen. Specifically, your body reacts to the thin air in the following ways:

  • Increasing natural hormone erythropoietin (EPO) production, which in turn increases red blood cell mass for delivering oxygen to muscle cells and changing it into energy.
  • An elevation in V02 max (the maximum amount of oxygen the body can convert to work) giving you increased stamina for the long haul.
  • Increasing the amount of mitochondria–the powerhouses in cells that help your body convert oxygen into energy.
  • Increasing haematocrit levels to provide a larger percentage of cells carrying oxygen.
  • Elevating capillary volume, creating more blood pathways to muscle cells for enhanced muscle oxygenation.
  • Increasing the lungs’ ability to exchange gases efficiently – so that every breath you take more oxygen enters the bloodstream.
  • Boosting total blood volume to move oxygen more efficiently through your bloodstream.

Studies have revealed that athletes who return to “sea level” from a period of at least 2 – 3 weeks of high altitude training will perform better, and this can last for a long period of time after the training. This includes both endurance exercises and quicker, intermittent exercises of shorter bursts. It is now common for athletes of individual sports and team sports to go away to a “high altitude training camp” as part of their competition preparation.

Altitude training is also used extensively in the rehabilitation programmes of athletes. Hypoxic training can benefit an injured athlete or player in the rehabilitation process in the following ways:

  • Accelerate healing and recovery from injury, and return to full training and competition sooner
  • Maintaining fitness whilst injured
  • Avoid unwanted weight gain whilst injured

Although altitude training can be an expensive procedure, it is certainly one that can benefit an elite athlete in many ways. Jamie Heaslip, Rugby player with Leinster and Ireland maintains that it is an effective training tool that improves his performance, “There’s a notable difference when you’re at altitude in terms of how you’re breathing and how doing something is a whole lot harder, exercise and stuff like that”.  So it is apparent that altitude training is a highly useful tool in the life of an elite athlete. It is an aspect of Sport Science that has the potential to develop athletes well into the future. It’s a sport science tool that is integral to performance and rehabilitation.