Performance Benefits of High-Altitude Training

Learn about the benefits and potential dangers of high-altitude training.

High-Altitude Training

The desire to get a step ahead of the competition always prompts athletes to seek the latest and greatest advancements in training. One unorthodox method, known as high-altitude training, is literally taking athletes' performance to new heights.

Coaches and athletes from all sports swear by the competitive edge high-altitude training provides. The U.S. National Teams set up one of their training centers in Colorado Springs, which is over a mile above sea level.

High-altitude training is effective, but it's not just about training on a mountain top. Today's methods are based on years of extensive research and trial and error.

How High-Altitude Training Works

As altitude increases, the air gets thinner and less oxygen is available. To compensate for the reduced supply of O2, the body produces more red blood cells to carry as much oxygen as possible to working muscles and organs.

The true benefit of high-altitude training occurs when you return to lower altitudes. The elevated level of red blood cells helps your body more efficiently deliver oxygen to muscles, theoretically increasing muscular endurance and overall performance.

Potential Problems

Your body doesn't automatically adapt to a higher altitude. If you have ever played a sport or exercised at a high altitude, you've probably noticed that you were short of breath and more fatigued than usual. This is normal when your body has not had sufficient time to adapt.

At first, you may not be able to train as hard, potentially forfeiting some strength and endurance and counteracting potential gains from training at a high altitude.

Time to Adapt

Robert Chapman, researcher for the U.S. Olympic Committee and USA Track & Field, recommends working at a minimum of 7,000 feet above sea level for at least 28 days to allow your body to adapt. The physiological changes caused by high-altitude training wear off in two to four weeks, so elite athletes often train and practice at high-altitude right up until the start of their competition.

Precautions

High-altitude training requires careful implementation to avoid problems. It's generally recommended to have professional supervision or monitoring to observe and understand how your body is reacting to the new training environment.

Performing intense workouts at altitude can induce acute mountain sickness. Symptoms include shortness of breath, severe headache, persistent coughing, hallucinations or worse. If you experience one of these symptoms, you should immediately descend to lower altitudes and breathe pure oxygen.

Conclusion

High-altitude training is a scientifically advanced method for improving athletic performance. Elite athletes have had success using this method, as evidenced by the U.S. Olympic Committee's decision to locate one of their primary training facilities at high altitude. However, you must proceed with caution, as there can be serious consequences if you aren't careful.

Read more:

Ellery Hollingsworth's High-Altitude Gatorade Nutrition Plan
Chris Leigh's Aerobic Trail Running


Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock

Topics: TRAIN | ENDURANCE | BLOOD CELLS | OXYGEN | ALTITUDE TRAINING | RED BLOOD CELLS