Knowledge Base

Altitude training – Thin air for the next performance level

By training in thin high altitude air, top athletes strive for peak performance. 2PEAK presents a summary of methods and experience of altitude training.

The effects of altitude training

Altitude training is based on the idea of creating a training stimulus through a slight lack of oxygen (hypoxia) and consequently developing a performance reserve. With altitude, air pressure and thus the amount of oxygen available per breath decreases, reducing performance capacity.

At 2,500 meters (8,250 feet) about 27% less oxygen enters the body with each breath. The partial pressure of the oxygen drops, although the proportion of oxygen in the atmosphere remains the same as at sea level – constant 20.9%. If the body is kept short of oxygen in this way over a period of time, it adapts. Breathing quickly becomes more efficient, stimulated by the endogenous hormone erythropoietin (EPO), and more red blood cells are formed, thereby increasing the oxygen transport capacity in the blood.

It takes around four weeks for the body to acclimatize to the changed environment. By the way, altitude training is not the same as more intensive training at normal altitude. Altitude induces additional adaptation processes, as even with less physical effort than usual, oxygen becomes scarce and muscle cells must manage the limited resources more efficiently.

One possible consequence of longer periods at height, as related by mountain climbers, is muscle shrinkage because of the lower performance capacity. Relative capillary density increases, so the resulting oxygen supply to the remaining muscle mass improves, although the total muscular strength diminishes.

Possible effects of altitude training

  • More efficient breathing
  • Improved vascular oxygen transport capacity
  • Higher anaerobic resistance
  • Improved oxygen transport in the muscle fibers
  • 1 – 5 per-cent performance improvement at lactic threshold

There are several successful methods of altitude training. This is surprising. On the other hand, all methods create stimuli beyond the norm, and that alone is what makes training successful. Science has not yet reached a definitive judgment. Evidently, there is a strong individual component, which affects different people differently, as not everyone derives the same benefits. But the type of preparation also plays an important role.

High altitude training – The different methods

1. Train high – Live high

The classic form of altitude training: living and training at high altitudes, with a tendency to train at lower altitudes than where you sleeps. However, the ideal conditions for this method are found only in a few places in the world. One famous area is the Oberengadin in the Swiss canton of Graubünden. There, you can train on relatively flat terrain at 1,800 meters above sea level. It is possible to descend to 1,000 meters in Poschiavo for particularly intense training.

The Muottas Muragl Hotel, above St. Moritz, at 2,465 meters, specializes in hosting athletes who want to sleep a bit higher to maximize the training effect. During sleep, red blood cells multiply, increasing the oxygen transport capacity in the blood. Training is done at a slightly lower altitude, so that the intensity is not too much lower than under normal conditions and the muscles stay in shape.

Conclusion: A proven natural method to increase endurance performance, but it requires time and commitment.

2. Train low – Live high

This method sounds tempting: training at low altitudes and sleeping higher promises to improve fitness during sleep. Altitude in this method is often increased artificially: using special bedrooms (such as hypobaric tents) or high-altitude houses. The advantage is that, by training at normal altitudes with a normal oxygen supply, it is not necessary to reduce the intensity of the training. However, a minimum stay of about 400 hours at 2,500 meters altitude is required to trigger the adaptation processes, equivalent to about six to eight weeks of sleep in hypobaric tents. This method is used by many professional cyclists during their training build-up to the pre competition preparation at altitude or normal height; mountain climbers also use altitude tents to shorten the acclimatization period.

Conclusion: A complementary acclimatization method to training. It has proven to be effective mainly for improving respiratory efficiency.

3.  Train high – Live low

The exact opposite of the previous method: training at high altitude and sleeping at low level. The athlete is only exposed to high altitude for short periods. Artificial methods also exist for this. The O2 ratio in the air is reduced using a particulate filter or a membrane, or additional nitrogen is added. In both cases, the reduction of O2 in the air mixture simulates high-altitude conditions. It is a very expensive method to use at home.

Conclusion: A complementary method to normal training. The effect primarily aims at improving muscle strength, which is interesting for sprinters.

4. Intermittent High Altitude Training

In intermittent altitude training (IHT), altitude and normal air are breathed alternately, for example in intervals of five minutes for the total duration of an hour. This training can be done passively, without physical activity, and/or actively during training on a roller. It was first used in East Germany, especially as preparation for altitude training camps. Through a circulatory breathing device like the Hypoxator, costs can be significantly reduced compared to training in altitude chambers.

Conclusion: An adaptable version of the train high – live low method.

Requirements for high altitude training

  • Good basic fitness
  • Good health
  • Several years of training using workload control
  • Adequate supplement of iron and vitamin C.
  • High altitude training should not be planned for the first time before an important race.

Most common mistakes in high altitude training

  • Too high intensity
  • Too short recovery times


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