Altitude training – Just the basics

As you ascend to altitude for training (Ideally 1600-2600m), the amount of oxygen carried by the red blood cells (bound to haemoglobin) is reduced, resulting in less oxygen being delivered to working muscles. In endurance events which rely on the availability of oxygen (generally those events lasting more than two minutes), a decrease in oxygen delivery results in lower than normal performances as evidenced by many of the middle distance and endurance events at the 1968 Mexico Olympics. As the body acclimates to altitude exposure various physiological adaptations occur over a period of weeks. These adaptations improve physical performance both at altitude as well as at sea level should an athlete return from altitude to compete at sea level.

Does everyone benefit altitude training?

The best estimates suggest that approximately 85% of athletes involved in targeted events will benefit from altitude exposure. The remaining 15% of athletes will show no change to their performance or in fact regress.

How long do improvements made at altitude persist once an athlete returns to sea level?

Many teams have tracked their athletes’ results and found their best results were achieved on many different days after altitude camps, thus making it difficult to say with certainty that Day 14, for example, is the perfect day upon which to compete after an altitude camp. However, it is generally agreed that if an athlete has traveled from sea level to train at altitude and then returned to sea level to compete, the physiological benefits of the altitude sojourn persist for approximately 3-4 weeks depending on individual athlete characteristics.

What are the basic physiological effects of altitude?

  • Increase in erythropoietin (EPO) production (the hormone governing the production of red blood cells), which in turn increases red blood cell mass (haematocrit) and enhances delivery of oxygen to muscle cells.
  • Increase in total blood volume to move oxygen more efficiently through the bloodstream.
  • Increase in V02 max (the maximum oxygen carrying, delivery and usage capacity of an individual's body during exercise. Often considered to be the gold standard of cardiovascular fitness).
  • Increase in capillary network at a muscle cell level, creating more blood pathways to muscle cells for improved oxygen supply and waste product (e.g. CO2 and lactic acid) removal.
  • Increase in volume of mitochondria, the energy "houses" of the cells.
  • Increase in “myoglobin” concentrations (the compound to which oxygen binds onto muscle cells once delivered by the blood).
  • Increase in the lungs' ability to exchange gases efficiently so more oxygen gets into the bloodstream with each breath.
  • An increased respiration rate which increases bicarbonate levels (and as such changes acid-base status of the blood) helping to “buffer” lactic acid concentrations at higher levels for events having a significant anaerobic contribution.
  • Increases in the concentrations of aerobic enzymes resulting in improved aerobic metabolism.

Why do athletes use altitude training?

Altitude training is used to increase speed, power, and endurance.

There are two effective ways to use altitude training in an athletes’ preparation: – (i) the "sleep high, train low" method, and (ii) the "train high" method.

Altitude Services supports both of these methods of training with our altitude simulation tents, demountable rooms and equine stalls as well as our tailored high performance training facilities.

What benefits have been documented from altitude training?

  • Increased red blood cell concentration
  • Increased endurance
  • Increased power
  • Increase in lean body mass
  • Accelerated fat loss

How much altitude exposure is required to reap the performance benefits?

Research suggests a consistent 6-7 days exposure per week for 4-6 weeks at 2200-4,000 metres for 10-12 hours per day is enough to produce the desired effect.

After you leave altitude the physiological benefits persist (but diminish) over a period of about 3-4 weeks.

Once acclimated how much altitude exposure is required to maintain the beneficial effects?

The best estimate is 4-5 days per week for 10 hours per day should be enough to keep you acclimatized. Additional research is needed to make a hard and fast rule, but once fully acclimatized, less exposure to altitude is required to maintain acclimatization.

Why use simulated altitude systems?

Altitude Services does away with the time and cost involved with relocating to the mountains.

Our systems allow athletes to select and optimize their ideal altitude for sleeping and training, without compromising their performance which can sometimes occur at high altitude training venues.

How does Altitude Services create the high altitude environment?

Altitude Services creates a “high altitude environment” by two methods – depending on the system selected:

In both instances the simulated altitude is created by decreasing the percentage of oxygen in the air. Normal atmospheric air consists of 20.9% oxygen, 78% nitrogen with the balance made up of a mixture of gases collectively known as “argon”.

Our systems manipulate the concentration of oxygen in the gas mix to simulate altitudes of up to 6000 metres (approximately 20,000 feet) with oxygen concentrations of 10% - which is the equivalent of being at the base camp of Mount Everest. Our own personal research, and closely following the scientific literature, suggests optimal athletic performance returns are derived from exposure to moderate altitudes of between 2200-4000 meters or 12-16% oxygen concentrations.

Our systems come complete with oxygen monitors and a feedback mechanism which maintains the desired oxygen concentration once selected.

Do I have to be an elite athlete to benefit from altitude training?

No. Whilst altitude training will not turn a sub-elite performer into a world beating elite athlete, it will help you optimize your own performance. The best estimates available in the scientific research suggest performance improvements within the range of 2-5%. In fact, sub-elite performers are likely to see greater performance increments compared to elite athletes.

I’ve read about performance increasing by 2-5% with the “Sleep High/Train Low” regimen in the real world. Can Altitude Services achieve similar results?

We believe the performance benefits achieved by Altitude Services might be even greater than those seen in the landmark 1997 research study conducted by Professors Levine, Stray and Gundersen. Here’s why:

In this study the athletes slept at about 2500 metres (Deer Valley, Utah). While there is nothing “wrong” with this altitude, it was simply chosen for convenience as there is accommodation and amenities available at that location. Certainly in the United States (and more so in Australia) there is limited accommodation at elevations of 3000 metres or greater making research at these elevations (in the real world) difficult if not near impossible.

Secondly, the study in question (Levine Stray and Gundersen) had their subjects training at approximately 1400 metres (hardly sea level) for their "training low."

It is clear to everyone (including the researchers, who cited this as a study limitation) that this wasn’t ideal and was simply done for convenience. At 1400 metres there is approximately 20% less oxygen available in the air compared to training at sea level creating a problem for optimal training conditions.

Using Altitude Services systems we can create the optimal training elevation (on an individual basis) and then return the athlete to sea level instantaneously to optimize their training sessions, potentially improving performance beyond the 2-5% increment often cited in the scientific literature.

Is altitude simulation safe?

Our equipment is for use by healthy non-pregnant individuals only.

You should consult your doctor before using any sort of altitude simulation equipment particularly if you suffer from any of the following conditions:

  • Asthma and other respiratory problems
  • Hypertension
  • Cardiovascular disease.

I’ve heard altitude training increases EPO concentrations. Isn’t this bad and couldn’t I be banned from competition?

EPO (erythropoietin) is a naturally occurring hormone in the body that stimulates the bone marrow to create more red blood cells.

There are two forms of EPO.

  • Natural EPO, which your body produces. This is safe and part of a healthy normal physiology. Natural EPO production increases when a person is exposed to altitude.
  • Synthetic or recombinant EPO is a drug used in the treatment of patients with kidney failure. This should be used only under a doctor's care in a therapeutic situation. It is this second form of EPO which has been abused in the athletic world.

If I want to “train” at altitude what do you suggest?

There are various schools of thought about altitude training.

  • We’d recommend a slow and progressive build up in relation to both intensity and duration. Start with a short period of time (10-15 minutes) at a moderate intensity.
  • Gradually build up duration in 10-15 minute increments over a few weeks. There’s no reason why ultimately you can’t train for as long as two hours (or longer) at a simulated altitude.
  • Once you’ve laid your aerobic base, then you can start introducing higher intensity interval training back into your training regimen at altitude.
  • As with any training regimen you can see results even with minimum use, but we recommend 2-3 times per week to gain the maximum cardiovascular, muscular, and performance benefits. Ideally these sessions should be spread throughout the week on a “day on” “day off” basis.
  • The intensity should never approach maximal effort. Studies have shown the benefits from altitude training come from moderate to moderately intense exercise.

I’ve heard I should consider using a pulse oximetre when training at altitude. Is this true?

A pulse oximetre is a device that shows you what percent of your hemoglobin molecules are carrying oxygen - your blood oxygen saturation or more commonly known as you “SpO2”

This is a non-invasive device that shines an infrared light through a finger and detects the fluctuating signals caused by blood flow.

At sea level (in a healthy, rested person) SpO2 levels sit at about 98-100% saturation. These levels decrease at altitude due to a lowered availability of oxygen in the air being ventilated.

Since your heart rate training zones do not correspond to the same levels (e.g. Speed, power output, etc.) as at sea level, a pulse oximetre is a better indicator of your exercise intensity allowing you to control the “dosage” of altitude being experienced.

During exercise at altitude, you should attempt to not allow your SpO2 drop below the 70-80% range.

I’ve heard it is easy to over-train at altitude. Is this true?

Efforts at altitude fatigue the body more so due to the decreased amount of oxygen availability.

Athletes who are supporting their own body weight (i.e. runners) usually compromise by doubling their rest intervals between efforts.

Rowers and cyclists will not be able to produce the same wattage (or power output) as normal when training at altitude. They should also increase rest time in between intervals, by about 50%.

This is also why we suggest training with the use of a pulse oximetre when at altitude.

Will I need to modify my eating habits when training at altitude?

Altitude training is dehydrating. You breathe deeper and harder drying out your airways. If you’re in a simulated altitude the environment is also air conditioned which exasperates this problem. When adapting to altitude increase your intake of carbohydrate. You may also wish to supplement your diet with a broad range, low dosage vitamin/mineral supplement, however never self-prescribe an iron supplement without first consulting your health-care professional.

Altitude Services has our own resident dietitian who is able to provide guidance in relation to any dietary modifications you may need to make on an individual basis to ensure optimal adaptation to altitude exposure.