There’s a reason why some of the United States’ top runners move to places like Colorado and Oregon and California, and it doesn’t have to do with the weather.
It has to do with elevation training, or altitude training.
[Jones Beach, Long Island, NY- Approximately 12 ft above sea level]
What does altitude training have to do with anything?
The higher you travel in the atmosphere (Think of climbing a mountain), the thinner the air gets. As the air thins out, it becomes more difficult to breathe because there is less oxygen in the air. The less oxygen there is, the harder your body has to work to breathe. As a response to this, the body will begin to produce more red blood cells to carry more oxygen, since there is a shortage of oxygen in the air.
As an endurance athlete, this often spells success as living and training at a higher altitude will (theoretically) cause you to produce more red blood cells, thus allowing your body to train faster and harder and (more importantly) longer than ever before. Proponents claim that when such athletes travel to competitions at lower altitudes, they will still have a higher concentration of red blood cells for 10-14 days, thus giving them a competitive advantage [source].
Are athletes who live and train at higher altitudes at an unfair advantage?
To reap the benefits of altitude training, many endurance athletes train for several weeks in areas that are at least 8,000 ft. above sea level. More commonly, however, endurance athletes will pick up their entire family and permanently relocate to areas known for having higher altitudes. But what about other athletes who live in areas that are only a few feet above sea level? Take the following hypothetical scenario:
Two athletes of similar sex, make and build eat and follow the exact training regimen, with one living at an elevation of 8,000 feet versus the other one at sea level. They both enter a 10k race at a neutral location. Which one will perform better?
This is where it begins to get tricky. You see, while some would be quick to say that the high-altitude-training runner would surely win the race, a study led by Robert Chapman, et al., found that there is a post-altitude acclimatization period that takes place. One study, Maximal Oxygen Consumption Changes After Altitude Training: Role of Ventilatory Acclimatization [source], looked closely at whether or not elite athletes consumed less oxygen upon returning to sea level from higher altitudes. What they found was that there was no significant improvement in oxygen consumption. In fact, oxygen consumption was the same or worse, in part because of the elevated breathing the athletes experienced when they returned to sea level [source].
Chapman, a lecturer in Indiana University’s Department of Kinesiology, seems to postulate that despite this ‘adjustment period’, endurance athletes who train at higher altitudes may still have the upper hand as these elevated breathing levels are caused by the body’s increase in its ability to consume oxygen. Thus, if higher-elevation athletes take this adjustment period in stride, they might consider allowing themselves anywhere from 7-10 days prior to a major endurance event within which to get acclimated in the surroundings that they’ll be racing in.
[Turkey Creek Trail, Umstead Park, NC- Approximately 300-525 ft above sea level]
Measuring the Benefits of Altitude Training
Quantifying the benefits of higher elevation training may be possible with the use of accelerometer technology. In his study, Measurement of Gait and Running Mechanics in Elite Distance Runners: Utilization of Accelerometer Technology, Robert Chapman explains his methodology:
Accelerometers are relatively new devices which allows for very precise measurements of motion. Recently, accelerometer technology has advanced significantly, making these devices small,light, and portable enough to be placed upon the top of a shoe to measure force due to motion. These accelerometers have no wires and can either store data in internal memory or transmit data wirelessly to a computer, allowing for measurements to be taken on a track in a real competitive or workout situation [source].
Items that Chapman plans to look at specifically:
- Running mechanics (i.e. foot-to-ground contact, swing time, stride length, stride frequency) in distance runners
- Comparisons to variations seen in men versus women, long distance runners versus middle distance runners, and elite versus collegiate athletes
- Running patterns (looking at how mechanics does or does not alter metabolic cost)
- Examining an athlete’s “fitness” level both before and after a fatiguing workout, before and after wearing calf compression sleeves as well as before and after altitude training*
Altitude Training: Yay or Nay?
As history has shown, there most certainly are benefits to training at a higher elevation. There are also studies that have been conducted, which show that the effects of higher altitude training doesn’t last forever after you leave a higher altitude for a lower one. Among the different altitude exposure techniques are the following:
Live High; Train High | -Maximum exposure to altitude; Controversy surrounding positive effects when racing/performing an endurance event at sea level
Live Low; Train Low | -Endurance athletes train at a high altitude/low oxygen environment while residing/living at a normal elevation level (Think of the athlete who lives at the base of a mountain but trains at the top, as an extreme example)
Live High; Train Low | -Endurance athletes live at a high altitude/low oxygen environment while training in a low altitude environment, the thinking being that the body will acclimatize to higher altitudes without all of the negative side effects. The trick is that the athlete must reside at the higher altitude for a minimum of 12 hours per day for at least 3 weeks [source].
You have to forget your last marathon before you try another. Your mind can’t know what’s coming. -Frank Shorter
Benefits of Altitude Training
- Increased production of the hormone, erythropoetin (EPO), which stimulates the production of red blood cells
- Increase in the number of small blood vessels
- Increase in the ability to manage the buildup of waste acid
- Increase in the number of mitochondria and oxidative enzymes
- Changes to the microscopic structure/function of muscle
- Possible decrease in oxygen due to too many red blood cells
- Loss of appetite
- Inhibition of muscle repair processes
- Altitude sickness
- Weight loss (At 5,000m or more above sea level, weight loss is unavoidable because your body actually consumes your muscles in order to provide energy [source])
- Weakened immune system and increased risk of infection
[Hudson Valley, NY- Mount Marcy (highest point) 4,293 ft. above sea level]
- Altitude Training | Alistair Simpson
- Altitude Training | Wikipedia
- High Altitude and Athletic Training | SportsMed Web, Rice University
- How to Maximize Benefits of High Altitude Training | Indiana University (2009, May 31). How To Maximize Benefits Of High Altitude Training.ScienceDaily. Retrieved January 17, 2012, from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/05/090531102843.htm
- Measurement of Gait and Running Mechanics in Elite Distance Runners | Robert Chapman, Ph.D, Indiana University