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High Altitude Training: Do Not Let Elevation Mess Up Your Run

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Most athletes experience a downhill in performance as they take the high hills and elevated surfaces along a race course. Races are won and lost while on these high-altitude regions. Runners may have A-class training but all the hard work fails you due to lack of hill climbing strategy or lower high altitude fitness. Thus, high altitude training is a critical component of your training session.

High altitude training is often forgotten to be taken into consideration. And this gives some athletes a competitive advantage. If you have also been finding it difficult to overcome the high altitudes then perhaps you should adopt high altitude training now.

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Runners Training in Mountains
Olympic Runners Often Train in High Mountain Regions (source)

High altitude training is the practice of training for several weeks at high altitude, preferably over 2,400 metres (8,000 ft) above sea level. Endurance athletes commonly train at intermediate altitudes due to the lack of suitable high-altitude locations. At intermediate altitudes, the air still contains approximately 20.9% oxygen, but the barometric pressure and the partial pressure of oxygen is less. Thus providing the challenge.

Depending quite on the protocols used, our body acclimatizes to the relative oxygen lack in ways such as increasing the mass of red blood cells (RBCs) and haemoglobin, or altering muscle metabolism. Proponents of this technique claim that when athletes with high altitude training travel to competitions at lower altitudes, they have a competitive leverage. This is because they have a higher concentration of red blood cells for 10–14 days which aids their endurance.

Know how to improve your endurance.

On the other hand, athletes who live permanently at high altitude and come down to sea level to only compete suffer setbacks in their training due to less available oxygen for workouts.

If you cannot to an outdoor altitude training, then simulate the training for high altitude through the use of an altitude simulation tent, altitude simulation room, or high altitude mask designed according to hypoxicator system wherein the barometric pressure is kept the same, but the oxygen content is reduced which also reduces the partial pressure of oxygen. Hypoventilation training, which consists of reducing the breathing frequency while exercising, can also mimic altitude training by significantly decreasing blood and muscle oxygenation

Altitude Exposure Techniques

Taking information about altitude training into account, various techniques have been formulated in order to acquaint the athletes to the beneficial effects of high altitude while not reducing their ability to train effectively.

These techniques have been labelled as ‘Live High – Train High, ‘Live Low – Train High’ and ‘Live High – Train Low’. The standard altitudes used are around 2000-2500m, which in itself cuts out the risk of some of the harmful effects of altitude exposure. The ‘low’ altitudes may not actually be at sea level but could be 1250m, for example. However, the difference between the two altitudes is significant enough to have an effect on training.

Here are the high altitude personal training approaches, take a look.

Also, check out these hill workouts for runners.

Technique 1: Live High – Train High

In this training approach, the athlete is exposure to maximum altitude and trained at that level to gain familiarity.

Technique 2: Live Low – Train High

The idea behind this regime is that the athlete is training in a low oxygen environment and resting in a normal oxygen environment. Although experts suggest that this technique might work, there are no good studies showing that the technique actually helps the athlete in their competitive performance at sea-level. Additionally, the intensity of exercises is also reduced and as a result, some athletes may complain of losing fitness in this regime.

Technique 3: Live High – Train Low

The theory behind this regimen is that the body will condition to altitude by living there while maintaining the training intensity at (or near) sea level. Hence, the favourable effects of altitude exposure are harnessed and at the same time, some of the negative ones are avoided. However, athletes at altitude must stay for more than 12 hours per day and for at least 3 weeks. With this technique, improvements in sea-level performance have been seen in events lasting between 8 and 20 minutes. And interestingly, athletes of all abilities are thought to benefit.

Effects of Altitude Training on Athletes

effects of high altitude training
High Altitude Training for Runners (source)

If you are an inhabitant of the plains and are planning to compete at higher altitudes, early acclimatization and altitude training will give you a competitive edge. But whether the adaptations your body makes from altitude training will have a positive or prolonged effect on your performance at sea level is uncertain. Understanding the high altitude science and how the body adapts to altitude change will help you plan your training schedule for peak performance at any level.

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  • Getting High

A sudden ascent to high altitude can profoundly affect your athletic performance. Due to lower atmospheric pressure at high altitudes, the partial pressure of oxygen (that you breathe in) is lower than at sea level, reducing the amount of oxygen available for physical activity. When oxygen level is reduced to point which impair your performance, you are said to be hypoxic.

According to exercise physiologists, at altitudes of around 5,000 feet, your VO2 max (the maximum amount of oxygen you can use during intense exercise) begins to diminish and your performance declines. VO2 max goes down linearly with incremental increases in altitude above 5,000 feet at a rate of about 3 percent per 1,000 feet.

Know about How to Increase VO2 Max: Add to Your Speed and Endurance

  • In the Zone

Hypoxia triggers a series of metabolic reactions that help you adjust to your new environment, a process called acclimatization. According to experts, individual rates of acclimatization can range from two weeks to several months. One significant adaptation to hypoxia is an increase in red blood cells and hemoglobin, the oxygen-transporting protein found in red blood cells.

A Swedish study by Berglund of healthy athletes in 1992, published in "Sports Medicine," found that with regular training, hemoglobin increased at the rate of about 1 percent per week. Because the difference in hemoglobin between sea level and high altitude is about 12 percent, Berglund speculated that it would take about 12 weeks for the athletes to become fully acclimatized.

  • Buzz Kill

Many athletes hope that the enhanced oxygen transport capabilities gained at altitude will give them a competitive advantage at sea level. But according to Mark Jenkins, MD of Rice University, there is a lack of scientific evidence to support the notion. Because of decreased VO2 max, you cannot train at the same intensities as at sea level, and your cardiovascular fitness may decline.

What's more, after prolonged training at altitude, lean muscle mass becomes diminished, an adaptation that may hurt performance at sea level. According to Sports Fitness Advisor, after four to six weeks at altitude, an athlete's lean mass can diminish by as much as 20 to 25 percent.

  • Coming Back Down

Rather than training at high altitudes in hopes of improving performance at sea level, an alternative approach is to train low and live high. The idea is to train at lower altitudes where you can perform at peak VO2 max, and live at high altitudes so that you will realize the benefit of increased hemoglobin.

The live high, train low approach has shown to improve athletic performance in sports events lasting between eight and 20 minutes. However, you would have to spend more than 12 hours per day at altitude for at least three weeks to realize acclimatization benefits.

  • Haematological Effects

Research indicates that exposure to high altitude environments can increase red blood cells and plasma volume in individuals living at sea level. Ever since then, athletes have been interested in harnessing the effects of elevation training on blood and physical performance. These changes include an increased haemoglobin mass (the oxygen transport metalloprotein in red blood cells) and a rise in the number of actual red blood cells.

This means that there are greater efficiency and greater volume of oxygen-transporting cells. Additionally, it also results in an increased density and economy of capillaries that facilitates easy blood movement in the body. The changes in the blood and circulatory system are considered to be key contributory factors for the increase in maximal oxygen uptake and the subsequent performance improvements.

Benefits of Altitude Exposure

Exposure to high altitude could seemingly improve an athlete’s effort capacity. Exposing the body to high altitude makes it acclimatize to the lower oxygen level available in the atmosphere. Many of the changes that occur with acclimatization improve oxygen delivery to the muscles. This leads to the popular theory that more oxygen will lead to better performance.

For any type of exercise lasting longer than a few minutes, the body needs oxygen to generate energy. Without it, muscles seize up and can become damaged. This type of exercise is called aerobic exercise, meaning with oxygen.

Read on to know about Aerobic vs Anaerobic Exercise: Know the Basics to Train Better

Boxing training in high altitude
Training in High Altitude (source)

Our body produces a hormone called erythropoietin (EPO) which stimulates the production of red blood cells which carry oxygen to the muscles. Now it is said- the more blood cells you have, the more oxygen you can deliver to your muscles (but up to a point). There are also a number of other changes that happen during acclimatization which may help athletic performance, including an increase in the number of small blood vessels, an increase in buffering capacity (ability to manage the build-up of waste acid) and changes in the microscopic structure and function of the muscles themselves.

Problems of Altitude Exposure

However, acclimatization to high altitude is not as simple. There are a number of other effects that could rule out the above benefits. For example, the rise in red blood cells comes at a cost, having too many blood cells makes the blood thicker and can make blood flow sluggish. This makes it harder for it to flow swiftly round the body, and can actually decrease the amount of oxygen transportation where it is needed.

  • At very high altitudes (>5000m), weight loss is unavoidable because your body actually consumes your muscles in order to provide energy.
  • There is also a risk that the body’s immune system will become vulnerable, leading to an increased risk of infections.
  • There may be adverse changes in the chemical mechanism of the muscles too.
  • Plus, the body fails to exercise as intensely at high altitude. This results in reduced training intensity, which may consequently hamper performance in some sports.
  • At very high altitudes, further problems such as loss of appetite, inhibition of muscle repair processes and excessive work of breathing are encountered.
  • To make things worse, there is the problem of altitude illnesses that can dramatically reduce the capacity to be active at altitude, or foreshorten the exposure to high altitude altogether.

To Sum Up

High altitude training mask
Training with High Altitude Training Mask (source)

High altitude training is a concept of the grey area. It has two extreme positions. The proponents of the altitude running technique claim that it is an excellent workout for endurance athletes. Whilst, those that have not been able to reap the benefits of it entirely say that it fails because of training intensity. However, the bottom line is if you want to improve your performance in sporting activities which depend on optimal aerobic metabolism to sustain duration of the performance or to boost recovery, then high altitude training is an option to consider.

The  “Live High, Train Low” for a period of 3-4 weeks prior to an event is probably the best strategy- however, your specific reaction to hypoxia training should be evaluated in the offseason to assess how you respond. 12 hours per day at altitude is minimal to boost haematological changes in blood cell volume and EPO, and iron status must be sustained to ensure these changes provide optimal benefits! Let us know if you have any suggestions for high altitude training.

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