This is one of those big myths around the sport, we have seen it in different stories, news articles and stories from different athletes. It is not uncommon to see some of the best Tour de France cyclists spending a couple months riding in the high Mountains of Boyaca in Colombia some 2500 mts above sea level, the mythical Italian camp of Livigno up to 3000 mts above sea level or the legendary Marathon camps in the Rift Valley in Kenya that is 1900 mts above sea level and 30C degrees average. This activity is called High Altitude training.
When talking about high altitude training there are many questions that come from it. What exactly is it? Is it possible for any athlete to try it? How can we get the best of it? and for how long will the effects of this type of training stay on the body? In today’s blog, we will try to give a brief introduction to High Altitude training, the effects and when and where to give it a try if necessary.
The first thing we need to know is, what exactly is high altitude training? In short, it is training in places where the altitude above sea level is much higher (normally anything above 1500 metres) which will translate into less oxygen in the air, forcing the body to work harder and making it stronger and more efficient when returning sea level and competing. This means that every workout you do up there will feel harder as your body will need to get the best out of the little oxygen in the air to respond to the physical demands. The more you train up there, the better you will adapt and the easier it will be to perform once you get back to your usual levels.
The effects of high-altitude training are many, but for this blog we will focus on the three main outcomes.
Increased Erythropoietin Levels
At high altitude your body will naturally develop more erythropoietin as a response to a lack of oxygen. This will force your body to produce more red blood cells, making it possible for your body to carry oxygen with much greater efficiency. Having more red blood cells will increase oxygen availability resulting in less fatigue when training and competing.
Increased Aerobic Capacity
As a result of the increase in red blood cells, your Vo2Max will increase. This means the highest amount of oxygen your body can consume during intense training is increased. This extends the time it will take you to fatigue.
Increased Tolerance to Lactic Acid
Another effect of increased erythropoietin is that the body will be able to better withstand the effects of lactic acid. This makes it possible to train harder, for longer before your body needs to stop.
If you decide to book your holidays to some of the highest places in the world in the aims of becoming a stronger athlete, there are a few things to consider. Firstly, you need to allow your body to adapt to the change in altitude. Give yourself a few days, or even weeks, just to get used to the difference in oxygen levels and start with easy and low volume training. The adaptation period varies from person to person, so be patient with this process. Monitor for altitude sickness symptoms such as headache, tiredness, nausea or vomiting among others, and seek medical advice if any of these symptoms persist. Keep an eye on your body and monitor your average heart rate, depending on how high you go, even a warm up jog can be felt as a maximum effort sprint if your body hasn’t had the time to adapt.
There are other aspects to consider when planning high-altitude training. First is considering that each athlete works in a different way, meaning that for some athletes, the adaptation period can be easier and for some others it will take much more time. For example, athletes who were raised in areas of high altitude or high temperatures will have an easier time adapting to the demands of high-altitude training. Another factor to consider is genetics, previous training and even where the athlete has lived over the past decade.
Although there is still much to learn about this type of training, it is true that the effects of it on the body can be measured and the reason why some of the best athletes do it is to get the best effect on their body before a specific race. It is important to understand the individual adaptation periods, the type of training that can and cannot be done when living and training at such altitude and for how long the effect will stay with us. Studies suggest that the positive effects of high-altitude training are relatively short-lived, so careful and considered planning needs to be undertaken before attempting it.
When thinking of a high-altitude holiday, far away from your triathlon Melbourne roots, it is worth considering that just by being surrounded by this environment all day every day you will get the benefits. You will also get to know some of the places where some of the best in the sport go to train, relax and unwind.