Altitude Training for Athletic Success: Part II

Altitude training will build red blood cells, but makes it more difficult to recover from hard workouts.

The primary reason many athletes seek high altitude training locations is to help improve the oxygen carrying capacity of the blood and to increase the chemical in the body that makes oxygen more available to the muscles.

In Part I we learned how the body responds in positive and negative ways to altitude stress. In Part II, we'll look at strategies for training at altitude.

Artificially Live High and Train Low

One training theory suggests you should live at a moderately high altitude and train at a lower one. This is commonly titled, "live high and train low". Theoretically, this means living in the mountains to gain more oxygen-carrying capacity and driving to sea level to do your speed work to achieve maximum power.

While nobody wants to spend that much time or expense driving, scientists have researched this kind of training using a "high-altitude house" that simulates living at 8,200 feet.

In one experiment, athletes spent 16 to 18 hours living inside the altitude house and did their training outside at sea level. These athletes showed the physiological improvements typical of living at altitude, and they had performance breakthroughs as well.

In contrast, other athletes doing the same training but not living at altitude showed no gains either in physiology or performance.

Live High and Artificially Train Low

If you don't have access to an altitude house while living at sea level, consider living at moderate altitude. The Northern Arizona University Center for High Altitude Training (altitude 6,512) considers altitudes between 5,000 and 8,500 feet to be ideal. This recommendation is similar to that of Dr. Randy Wilber, exercise physiologist for the U.S. Olympic Training Center (OTC) in Colorado Springs, Colorado (altitude 6,035).

While training at altitude is good for building red blood cells, it is not good for recovery from hard workouts. Dr. Wilber comments in his book Altitude Training and Athletic Performance, that living at higher altitudes likely hampers training recovery. This is because of the reduced availability of oxygen for the muscle repair process.

Recovery aside for a moment, once you are living high you need to do workouts at the same intensity or power output that you plan to use on race day. We learned in Part I that altitude hampers your ability to train at the same intensity that you would at sea level, so you will need to begin your training at your desired race intensity for shorter periods of time, with longer rest bouts so you can keep the power output high. As you progress through your training, you can increase the length of the work bouts and decrease rest time.

If you are an elite athlete at the OTC, or otherwise have access to a physiology lab, another strategy is to utilize supplemental oxygen training for high-intensity workouts. Athletes at the OTC wear a mask over their nose and mouth to breath sea-level oxygen while completing high-intensity workouts on a bike trainer that lets them know power output.

This enables the cyclists to be sure power is not lost while living at altitude. Triathletes and runners complete running treadmill workouts utilizing supplemental oxygen, clipping along at sea-level race pace.

Supplemental oxygen workouts are very stressful, and the coaches and athletes must be very careful that full recovery is accomplished before another supplemental O2 workout is completed.

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