By training in thin high altitude air, top athletes seek peak form. 2PEAK presents a summary of methods and experience of altitude training
Training at altitude is based on the idea of causing a training impulse through slight hypoxia (oxygen lack) and to develop a performance reserve. At increasing altitude, the atmospheric pressure drops and with it the amount of available oxygen thus lowering the performance.
At 2,500 meters (8,250 feet) about 27% less oxygen enters the body in the 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. The breathing rapidly improves in efficiency – stimulated by the body’s own supply of the hormone Erythropoietin (EPO) red blood corpuscles form, increasing the oxygen transport capacity of the blood.
It takes around four weeks for the body to acclimatise to the changed environment. Training at altitude is not just like low level training performed higher up, by the way. The high level requires other adaptation processes, as oxygen will already be in short supply at low performance levels and the muscle cells have to be more economical with their slender diet of O2. 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 vary varied methods of high altitude training – which are successful (see the summary further down). That is a surprise. On the other hand all these methods bring an unusual stimulus and that leads to the success of the training. Science has not come to any fast conclusions so far. Evidently there is a strong individual component to it all, which affects different people in different ways. Not everyone benefits the same. But the type of preparation also plays an important role.
Benoit Nave, coach at 2PEAK, has been on many high altitude training camps with a number of top athletes and noticed, that “those who had not benefited from the training previously had either not been completely well or had trained wrongly.” According to Nave, after corrections to diet and different training, these athletes were then also able to profit from the high altitude method.
What is surprising is that so little scientific data about high altitude training exists. Prof. Dr. Andreas Niess, medical director of the sports medicine department at Tübingen university clinic, has been researching the subject for years. He says “To date there is no scientific proof of the effectiveness of high altitude training on increasing performance at low levels.” Nevertheless the researcher, who himself was an active sportsman, doesn’t doubt the usefulness of the method. He sees the greatest potential in the classical method – sleep high, train high – and recommends trying it out.
The experts we spoke to only recommend high altitude training for experienced athletes with good basic condition – which is due to the fact that so far nobody has thought much about whether it is useful to recreational athletes. They all agree that the difficult thing is getting the training intensity right. That doesn’t mean though, that experienced, body conscious, ambitious recreational athletes shouldn’t try it.
High Altitude Training – The different Methods
1. “train high – live high”
The classic form of high altitude training: you live and train at height – whereby usually training is carried out at lower level then sleeping. There are not many places in the world which offer the ideal conditions for this. One famous area is Oberengadin – the Swiss Grisons. There you can train on the valley floor which is relatively flat at 1,800 meters (5,950 feet) and it is possible to go down to 1,000 meters (3,300 feet) in Poschiavo for especially intensive training.
The Muottas Muragl hotel above St Moritz at 2,465 meters (8,135 feet) specialises in quartering athletes, who wish to sleep a bit higher, in order to maximise the training effect. During sleep, the red blood corpuscles multiply and increase the O2 transport capacity of the circulation. You train at a lower level, so that the intensity is not too much below that in normal conditions and the musculature stays in form.
Conclusion: Time intensive but tried and tested natural method of increasing stamina performance.
2. “train low – live high”
This method sounds tempting: training at low level and sleeping higher promises an increase in form during sleep. The altitude in this method is often artificially raised: using special bedrooms (altitude tents) or complete high altitude house blocks. Advantage: Training at normal levels with standard O2 partial pressure obviates the need to reduce the training intensity. There again, you need a minimum time of 400 hours at 2,500 meters altitude, to set the adaptation process in motion – which means sleeping in an altitude tent for six to eight weeks. 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 acclimatisation period.
Conclusion: Method of acclimatisation supplementary to training. Only proved to be really effective in improving breathing 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. There artificial methods of achieving this too. The O2 ratio in the air is either reduced using a particle filter or membrane or supplemental nitrogen is added. In either case, the reduction of O2 in the air mixture simulates conditions at higher altitude. It is a very expensive method to use at home. Equipping a training room in this way will cost at least 25,000 Euro (presently ca.$16,000.-). Some training centers offer this service in specially equipped rooms, where an hour will cost around 25 Euros ($16.-).
Conclusion: Supplements normal training. Effect is mostly an improvement in the musculature, interesting for short distance athletes.
4. Intermittent High Altitude Training
In intermittent high altitude training, air at high altitude pressure and at normal pressure is breathed by turns – in 5 minute intervals for instance for a period of one hour. This training can be passive, ie. without sporting activity or/and active, while training on a roller. It was first used in East Germany in preparation for high altitude training. By using a circulation breathing machine such as the Hypoxator (www.hypoxator.de) the cost can be reduced compared to training in high altitude rooms.
David Rosas, the inventor, who runs a machine building company and also works as a coach, originally thought up this form of training “To give my athletes, who could not afford classic high altitude training, a similar chance.” Following some years of experience, he is convinced that “the Hypoxator offers a new way to organise high altitude training”. He thinks, interestingly, that short distance and middle distance athletes profit most from the technique, “training with the Hypoxator works mainly on the musculature and improves anaerobic ability noticeably.”
Conclusion: 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 competition.
Most Common Mistakes in High Altitude Training
+ Intensities too high
+ Recovery times too short
Example of training using the classic sleep high – train (medium) high method
Example of a pre competition preparation by Benoit Nave. The high altitude training begins with a recovery phase (blue) in which training is only performed at low intensity. Initial aim is to adapt to the altitude. Then follows a phase of eight days of endurance training (green) but also including two intensive days (red). In the second phase the duration is reduced but the training is more intensive. The high altitude training finishes ten to twelve days before the competition. Immediately before the competition the overall load is reduced considerably. High altitude training can cause nausea for six to eight days. One should plan a primary high altitude camp to gain experience and find the optimum individual timing. After the first competition phase, there should follow a second high altitude camp as preparation for the main competition.
If you are interested in trying high altitude training, you can contact Benoit Nave and profit from his experience. As part of his Diamond package Benoit can include detailed instructions for high altitude training.