How to train at altitude

By Sean O'Mahony | 4 Minute Read

Altitude training camps are always a hot topic of conversation whenever one of the Grand Tours roll around. Plenty of riders taking part in the Tour de France, Giro d'Italia and Vuelta Espana will prepare for races by attending such camps, but are they useful for everyone?

We're going to delve into what altitude training is, how athletes do it and, most importantly, should you do it?

What is altitude training?

In a nutshell, it's extremely advantageous for endurance athletes to get as much oxygen-rich blood to their muscles as efficiently as possible. Altitude training is currently the best, and only legal, training method for endurance athletes to stimulate their bodies and increase the mass of red blood cells & haemoglobin, thus increasing the oxygen-rich blood they can get to their muscles.

This training method has grown in popularity since drug testing methods to detect synthetic Erythropoietin (EPO) have become more sophisticated and effective. EPO is an essential hormone for red blood cell production.

At altitude the body naturally produces more EPO — not as much as one would receive from an exogenous source —  but when it comes to EPO, just a small increase can be of massive benefit to an elite endurance athlete.

Altitude training can also be simulated through the use of an altitude simulation tent, room or mask-based hypoxicator system.

 

Altitude tent

 

It's worth noting that the International Olympic Committee has banned the use of simulated altitude training devices such as these at the Olympics since 2000 and the Italian Ministry of Health has also banned the use of these devices since 2005.

Two very important issues to bear in mind with altitude training are:

1. It won't work for everyone - As with all things related to training, it's individual. What works for one athlete won't necessarily work for all.

2. The long-term benefits are limited - It's likely that the positive effects will decline 2-4 weeks post-training camp.

How do I train at altitude?

Get yourself off to one of the 'popular' spots around the world that Andy mentioned in his post 'Does altitude cause you to dehydrate faster?

Alternatively, install an altitude simulation tent in your bedroom. If you go for the latter approach you might want to check with your partner first!

Having said that, if you go for the first option you might also want to check with your partner, it's not going to be cheap.

The 3 primary methods for training at altitude

1. Live High/Train High

In this case the athlete would head up the hill and live, eat, train and sleep up there. Sounds simple and straightforward but unless you were born at altitude — like an Ethiopian distance runner or a Nepalese Sherpa — then you might run into a few problems.

 

Nepalese sherpa

 

The biggest danger is de-training. For a person who isn't used to training at altitude, doing intensive efforts is going to be very difficult. As a result, the majority of your training will likely be done at 80% of what you are capable of at sea level. Three or four weeks of that and you might have more red blood cells but your aerobic threshold will likely drop, thus cancelling out the benefit.

2. Live High/Train Low

In this scenario the athlete sleeps at altitude but trains as normal at lower altitudes. This is the most common training intervention and a 2006 study showed this method has a positive effect on performance.

The study from 2006 found that the subjects exhibited an increase in red blood cells and haemoglobin of around 5% after a 24 day training intervention. 5%! That's not too shabby for an elite athlete.

3. Live Low/Train High

This is probably the best option for the amateur athlete. Sleep in your normal surroundings without annoying your partner (or at least without annoying them anymore than you currently do with all your training).

In most cases the training intervention would take place within a specialised environment such as an altitude training centre. Many national sports bodies will have access to these but there are also some private facilities available and open to anyone willing to pay.

Examples of these facilities, include:

I'm sure there are many others around the world that you can find by searching the 'interweb'.

 

Should you train at altitude?

I'm going on the assumption that most of our readers are our customers, or potential customers. That means you're likely to be a highly-motivated athlete who has all the normal responsibilities of life - family, friends, job, studies, travel, and all the other myriad complexities of life in the world we live in.

Your time is scarce and so are your resources.

I'm going out on a limb and opine that, with very few exceptions, the average amateur athlete does not need to go on a specific altitude training camp. The long-term benefits will be limited, it takes time and it's expensive.

If you are lucky enough to have an altitude training centre close to where you live then the Live Low/Train High approach might be interesting to try.

Having said that, for most amateur athletes, simply focusing on your swim technique, increasing your power threshold on the bike, or concentrating on your sustainable pace for the run, will bring a much bigger bang for your buck.

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