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How does High Altitude training have effect on sports?

Updated: Oct 5, 2020

In anaerobic sports, where you don’t rely on oxygen for energy and must overcome the resistance of the air, it’s reasonable to expect significantly better performances at high altitude, mostly due to the reduced air resistance.

This explains why we had so many records on this kind of sports at the 1968 Olympic games in Mexico City.

• 100 m: Jim Hines 9.95 sec

• 200 m: Tommie Smith 19.83

• 400 m: Lee Evans 43.86 sec

• Long jump: Bob Beamon 8.90 m

On the contrary, in sports of longer duration where oxygen is essential there is a significant reduction of performance. As the distance and consequently the time of exercise get bigger, performance drops in comparison to sea level mostly due to the rising reliance on the aerobic energy system.

In order to see how that can happen we need to understand how does the body respond to the hypoxic environment.

What are the benefits of Altitude Training?

As a result of the exposure to altitude conditions, your body responds acutely and chronically, with physiological alterations and adaptations. At the first hours at altitude your body responds acutely with:

• increased pulmonary ventilation (VE)

• increased heart rate (HR)

• reduced maximum heart rate (MHR)

• and finally a reduced VO2 max in comparison with sea level VO2 max As you can understand, these acute responses are accompanied by an acute reduction of performance which lasts until the suitable adaptations occur. These adaptations are the chronic response of the body to the altitude environment. This process is called acclimatization and starts from the moment you set foot on altitude. It starts with the rise of erythropoietin (EPO) in the serum. Erythropoietin is the hormone responsible for the reproduction of red blood cells. Erythropoietin stimulates erythropoiesis, the process of red blood cell production in the bone marrow, which leads to:

• increased haemoglobin concentrations in blood (Hb)

• increased red blood cells (RBC)

• and consequently, elevated haematocrit (Hct).

These adaptations eventually lead to more oxygen being transported to and utilized by working muscles. As a result of the aforementioned haematological adaptations, athletes enhance their aerobic capacity. Even more, studies have shown many non-haematological adaptations that occur during altitude training and play a vital role in sports performance. In particular, they found that altitude training programs can:

• Increase capillary density

• Increase number of mitochondria and oxidative enzymes.

• Increase buffering capacity and improve exercise economy

The combination of all these adaptations leads to two significant reasons why someone would want to take advantage of this training method. The first one is to perform better at high altitude and the second one is to perform better at sea level.

The first one is quite obvious. In order to be able to perform your best at altitudes, you need to adapt to the conditions of the environment.

The second suggests that athletes can use the adaptation that gained at high altitude in order to perform better at sea level. Although this idea is still under debate, from my scan of the literature I think it’s fair to say that for most of the athletes this is possible. With that in mind, the actual question that rises is how can you do that?

Altitude Training Models

Throughout the years, research and practice led Scientists and Coaches to some specific training models that can be used for the cause of improving performance.

These are the:

• Live High Train High (LHTH)

• Live High Train Low (LHTL)

• Intermittent Hypoxic Exposure (IHE)

• Intermittent Hypoxic Training (IHT)

The Live High — Train High (LHTH) model.

This was the first altitude training model. In this regime, an athlete lives and trains at a desired altitude. The stimulus on the body is constant because the athlete is continuously in a hypoxic environment. Traditional altitude camps consist of living and training at a moderate altitude of 1800–2500 m, usually for 4 weeks. On return to sea level after an altitude training camp sea level performance is expected to be improved due to the physiological adaptations that have been produced at altitude

Despite the debate that carries on until today, LHTH model is in most of the cases an effective regime for producing hematological adaptations and improving both high altitude and sea level performance.

The problem that scientists found while applying this model is that as hypoxia increases the ability of the athlete to perform a quality training decreases. Athletes are no longer able to metabolize as much oxygen as they would at sea level and any given velocity must be performed at a higher relative intensity. The answer to that problem was the Live High — Train Low (LHTL) model, or in other words, the Sleeping High Training Low (SHTL) model.

The Live High — Train Low (LHTL) model.

This training idea involves living or sleeping at higher altitudes in order to experience the physiological adaptations that occur, while maintaining the same exercise intensity during training at sea level. Hence, the beneficial effects of altitude exposure are harnessed whilst some of the negative ones are avoided.

The Live High — Train Low model is considered to be the most effective strategy for improving both sea level and high altitude performance. In particular, there has been a ton of studies supporting its efficiency in producing both hematological and muscular adaptations when used in the right way. However, this method placed a large amount of stress and fatigue on the athletes due to the constant ascending and descending into altitude, traveling to and back from training sites and its high financial costs. The development of new devices made it possible to use artificial altitude as an additional training stimulus without traveling to the mountains

This is what we call ‘Altitude Simulation’. In order to do that, scientists create normobaric hypoxia via nitrogen dilution or oxygen extraction. The most common techniques are the hypobaric chambers that simulate the barometric pressure and the hypoxicators, which are generators that provide the suitable gas mixture into masks, chambers and hypoxic sleeping units (this is what I use, and specially what I will use in the final months of preparation). Due to the technical difficulty of transporting to higher altitudes every day, most of the athletes on LHTL model utilize artificial altitude.

The Intermittent Hypoxic Exposure (IHE) model.

ntermittent hypoxic exposure (IHE) or periodic exposure to hypoxia is defined as an exposure to hypoxia lasting from seconds to hours that is repeated over several days to weeks. These intermittent hypoxic bouts are separated by a return to normoxia or lower levels of hypoxia.

Although it sounds promising, in the majority of the studies with control groups, IHE didn’t induce any substantial change in either hematological parameters or in endurance performance. This might be due to the small dose of the altitude stimulus. Nevertheless, IHE might have the potential to produce some of the physiological adaptations that occur at altitude but the conditions under which a change like this can happened need further investigation.

The Intermittent Hypoxic Training (IHT) model. The last model is the Intermittent Hypoxic Training (IHT), were athletes can train under hypoxic conditions and remain at sea level for the rest of the time.

As a result of the small altitude dose it is clear that Intermittent Hypoxic Training alone cannot produce hematological adaptations like the ones we can expect on the LHTH and the LHTL models. This was evidenced by several studies, which all showed no significant changes in hematological variables after IHT protocols. However, when it was combined with Intermittent Hypoxic Exposure, Intermittent Hypoxic Training was more effective on improving hematological parameters, for example using a combination of IHE with IHT significant hematological adaptations were found. Some studies concluded that short-term hypobaric hypoxia combined with low-intensity training can produce improvement in the blood oxygen transport capacity.

On the other hand, Intermittent Hypoxic Training alone has shown significant muscular adaptations that could increase performance. One study consisted of training one leg in normoxia and the other one in hypoxia corresponding to 2300 m, for 30 minutes 3–4 times a week. Analysis of the muscular biopsies revealed a greater increase of citrate synthase activity under hypobaric conditions than under normobaric conditions. In addition, the myoglobin content increased in the leg trained under hypobaric conditions, whereas it tended to decrease in the normobarically trained leg.

More recent studies have found enhancement of capillary length density after Intermittent Hypoxic Training only, as well as a greater increase in mitochondrial volume density. Interestingly, the greatest increases in both these parameters were observed in the group that trained at higher intensity.

Together, these results demonstrate that Intermittent Hypoxic Training leads to muscular adaptations that either do not occur in normoxic conditions, or if they do so, they do to a lesser degree.

Who we are

Most might think that they have to travel high mountains and hills to get the benefits of altitude training but that’s not true. They can experience the effect of high altitude training still when they train on ground.

That’s why Altipeak International™ is here.

Altipeak International™ is an Irish Based company known for this affortable altitude training equipement. We provide an option to build your own altitude chamber/studio. We also sell altitude tents, altitude masks, and generators at affordable price. To know more about our products and services, please contact us or visit our website.

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