High altitude training has become very popular among endurance athletes over the past few years. This trend has developed due to emerging evidence that chronic exposure to altitude improves overall performance at sea level. There have been multiple peer reviewed studies proving that physiologic changes which occur with high altitude training are beneficial for low altitude performance. The physiological changes that occur in response to decreased oxygen availability include increased erythropoietin response, leading to an increase in red blood cell production. These physiological changes lead to an improvement in oxygen carrying capacity and the delivery of oxygen to muscles. The ability to store iron is also increased. Even though these physiological responses appear to have beneficial effects, they can also be detrimental. Some studies have indicated a “detraining effect” associated with long term high altitude training. The low oxygen available at high altitude impairs the ability to train at high intensity, which can in turn negate the improvement in VO2 max.
Given the most recent data collection, the mantra of “Live High, Train Low” has been adapted. The idea behind this thought process is that the athlete is able to gain all of the beneficial physiological changes of training at high altitude, while still being able to train at high intensities at a lower elevation. In order to gain the highest advantage from high altitude training, a series of clinical guidelines has been published. The guidelines state that the optimal altitude at which to live and train is between 2000-2500m. Although altitudes about 2500m provide the beneficial physiologic effects previously stated, they are also associated with negative effects such as decrease in quality of sleep. The guidelines also recommend all training performed at altitude to be of low intensity, and to reserve high intensity workouts for lower altitudes. Furthermore, it is recommended that in order to maximize the benefits of altitude training, one should remain at altitude for a minimum of 21 days. Finally, it is recommended to compete either within 48-72 hours after returning to sea level or to wait approximately 14 days before competing.
Altitude training is nothing new to the elite athlete. This has been a tool used by many top athletes over the years in order to gain as much advantage as they can on the day of a competition. It is these specific guidelines which have been recently been published that give more precise strategies to optimize sea level performance. It is, however, always important to keep in mind that although the above guidelines can give both professional endurance and everyday athletes the best chance of improving their competitive performances, the response to high altitude training can vary from one individual to another.
Anna Miller, PA-S
Carly Stillman, PA-S
Red Rocks Community College Physician Assistant Program
Constantini, K., Wilhite, D. P., & Chapman, R. F. (2017). A Clinician Guide to Altitude Training for Optimal Endurance Exercise Performance at Sea Level. High Altitude Medicine & Biology. 18(2), 93-101.