Is Altitude Training All Hype?

Altitude training seems to be all the rage in professional sports due to the resulting boost in athletic performance. Top sides from different leagues around the world go to great lengths to gain the benefits, including sending squads to altitude camps in a foreign country or even investing in an altitude simulation room. Though, is the financial strain worth all of the fuss?

So, what is altitude training?

Designed for endurance-based athletes, the protocol requires the individual to train at a high altitude where there is reduced oxygen availability. Over time, the body adapts to this environment in order to become more efficient. Changes to the body include:

  • An increase in red blood cell volume – Because oxygen saturation is less at higher altitudes, the body responds by upping red blood cell production. More of these cells means an improved ability to transport oxygen as the oxygen is afforded a greater chance at binding with the larger volume of haemoglobin. Upon returning to a lower altitude, the athlete’s body is now far better equipped at extracting oxygen, improving their aerobic capacity and therefore endurance. Erythropoietin or EPO, as it is more commonly known, is the hormone responsible for stimulating red blood cell production and has become infamous in recent times due to its link with doping in sports, like cycling, for instance.
  • Increases the efficiency of the muscles ability to use oxygen – Multiplying the number of blood vessels which supply a given area for example.
  • Improves metabolic efficiency.

“Sign me up!” I hear you shout. Not so fast Jimmy, allow me to finish!

First off, the research behind this training method is mixed. While some studies have demonstrated significant changes, like a 9% increase in endurance and power, others have shown no improvements. With so much variability, like training type, duration and necessary altitude, it is difficult to pinpoint what environment is optimal. Also, the vast majority of investigations undertaken thus far have been carried out on genuine endurance athletes, like distance runners, while no studies have focussed on the likes of footballers.

Furthermore, the adaptations which occur while at altitude are short-lived, perhaps lasting a few weeks at best. Upon returning to normal conditions, the body no longer requires the altitude-specific adjustments.

Wrapping things up now, in terms of players from team sports utilising this technique, I feel it is completely unwarranted and essentially money down the drain. However, for an endurance athlete looking to compete within a couple of weeks following this training, I believe it has its place. Even a small improvement in performance can mean the difference between placing in the medals or simply making up the numbers.

“Your attitude, not your aptitude, will determine your altitude.”

Zig Ziglar

By Andrew Cammarano



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