Can High Altitude Training Enhance Athletic Performance?

Elite athletes are commonly seeking ways to enhance their athletic performance. One strategy that has become popular is training at high altitudes. Higher altitudes can cause low oxygen saturation in the blood due to the low atmospheric pressure at high altitudes. When athletes train at high altitudes, it can improve how the body responds to exercise and result in increased endurance. Read on to learn more about high-altitude training.

Key takeaways:

What is high altitude training?

High altitude training is the practice of training at high altitudes, typically 7,000 to 8,000 feet above sea level. The oxygen inhaled from the air affects the energy muscles receive for physical performance. Oxygen is carried throughout our bodies by our red blood cells and helps muscles perform their functions.

When you are at a higher altitude, it makes it harder for the body to transfer oxygen into the blood. This can lead to people feeling more lethargic or getting out of breath easier when they are at a higher altitude. This triggers a response in the brain to produce more of the hormone erythropoietin, which encourages the body to make more red blood cells to transport oxygen. Over time, our body begins to transport the limited oxygen better at high altitudes.

The body adjusts

It does take time for the body to adjust to training at a high altitude. Studies have shown that there is no increase in red blood cell count for the first seven to 10 days, which means that athletes would need to spend a minimum of three to four weeks training at a high altitude to see the effect of increased red blood cell production.

If an athlete trains at high altitudes, when they return to sea level, the increased level of red blood cells they have from training at high altitudes allows their body to continue to transport oxygen better — which increases athletic performance. However, the body will return to normal levels of red blood cell production if the athlete does not repeat the process of training at a high altitude.

Live high, train low approach

The “live high, train low” approach is a training platform for American elite athletes. In this program, athletes spend the majority of their day around 8,000 feet above sea level. This allows the body to get used to the low oxygen levels. Low-intensity training may be done at this level.

Training occurs at a lower level, usually around 4,000 feet above sea level. This type of training approach allows athletes to benefit from the high-altitude adaptations while still being able to maintain a high-intensity training routine.

What are the benefits of high-altitude training?

High-altitude training reduces the amount of oxygen available in red blood cells, forcing your body to produce more red blood cells and become more efficient in utilizing its oxygen supply. Training at high altitudes has many benefits for elite athletes, including the following:

  • Increased aerobic exercise due to the increased oxygen delivery to the bodies tissues, muscles, and brain.
  • Increased production of erythropoietin hormone, which stimulates red blood cell production.
  • Increased production and release of the human growth hormone.
  • Enhanced oxygen transportation through the body.
  • Efficient use of oxygen for energy production.
  • Decreased heart rate and blood pressure.
  • Increased pulmonary oxygen absorption.
  • Stimulation of fat metabolism.
  • Decreased oxidative stress.

Increased oxygen delivery to tissues, muscles, and brain

Oxygen is used to produce energy, which helps your muscles move and perform activities. When you work out, your body delivers oxygen to your muscles but eventually becomes fatigued as your blood is unable to keep up with the oxygen demands of your muscles.

Studies have shown that high-altitude training improves sea-level aerobic exercise performance. This is due to the increased erythropoietin hormone (EPO) production, which stimulates red blood cell production. A high EPO production increases red blood cell production, which enhances oxygen delivery to your tissues, muscles, and brain. This helps decrease muscle fatigue, enhancing athletic performance.

Improved cardiac functioning and aerobic exercise

Cardiac functioning can affect the endurance of athletes. Studies have shown that high-altitude training can improve the endurance exercise capacity of athletes. Training at high altitudes increases the cardiac output and heart-stroke index, which improves cardiovascular function and the ability of the heart to fight hypoxia, or low oxygen levels.

The improved oxygen flow that can be achieved with high-altitude training can lead to increased maximal oxygen intake, or VO2 max. This is the maximum rate of oxygen consumption that can be achieved during physical exercise. When you have a higher VO2 max, you have better endurance.

Increased lactic acid capacity

When your muscles use oxygen during intense exercise, they produce a byproduct called lactic acid. When lactic acid accumulates, it leads to muscle fatigue which causes athletes to stop their workouts.

High-altitude training has been shown to increase the tolerance to lactic acid. This allows your body to endure higher levels of lactic acid before the muscles become fatigued.

The controversy of high-altitude training

While there are benefits to high-altitude training for elite athletes, there is also some controversy to this training method due to it altering the physiology of the body to be more competitive.

Altitude training gives muscles a natural boost of energy when more oxygen is available during lower-altitude competitions. However, athletes can’t train as hard at high altitudes. Over-training also becomes easier when training at high altitudes because athletes cannot rely on their body's normal cues, like muscle fatigue, labored breathing, and how fast they are going, which tell them how hard they are training.

High altitude training is recommended for elite athletes and is not something that is recommended for mid-level or beginner athletes. If you are not an elite athlete and want to improve your athletic performance, it is recommended to find a well-designed training program or work with a coach to help build on your intensity, duration, and recovery. If you have any underlying health conditions, you should consult with a healthcare provider before starting a new workout program to ensure it is safe for you to participate in.

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