Training Camps at Altitude. Should You “Go High?”
Altitude and the effects of altitude on performance and physiology have been a part of my career, training, and everyday life since my arrival in Denver eight years ago. For that reason, many athletes at the elite, master and amateur levels often ask me if altitude should be a part of their training camp. I am very careful in my response to each athlete to come to an answer that will best suit their performance goals. A training camp is a possibility to reduce the total effects of all life’s stresses (work responsibilities, interpersonal relationships and/or childcare responsibilities) and to temporarily better the ability to perform work at the specific intensity, volume, altitude and climate. The addition of altitude to this equation can be potentially beneficial but also presents a new variable that needs to be considered with care. When considering a training camp at altitude, athletes and coaches should consider several different variables, including location, timing in their preparation for their season, and duration of the training camp. Most importantly, athletes and coaches should consider whether the change in training environment, climate or other variables will create a specific adaptation that will help the athlete reach their performance and outcome goals.
The images of professional cyclists training in beautiful alpine locations in late winter and early spring, or in preparation for the Tour, can be very inspiring and excite the imagination. The location of a training camp at altitude can be as much a part of its success or failure as any of the other variables. The thought process that goes into selecting a location for a training camp at altitude is very similar to that of selecting a location for a training camp at sea level. Consideration should be given to roads or trails that are similar to the events an athlete will participate in throughout the year as well as access to living conditions that allow for quality sleep, nutrition and recovery. The most important variable to consider when considering a location for a training camp at altitude is how high to go. The physiological changes that could potentially improve sea level performance occur between 2,200 and 2,500 meters (7200 – 8200 feet). Red blood cell mass does not increase until this altitude is experienced. Another consideration for a training camp at altitude is creating a live high, train low environment (live at altitude/train at sea level or lower altitude). This allows the athlete to train at, or close to, their normal workload and to accumulate the benefits of exposure to altitude. It can take a little work to find locations that allow you to train low and live high. The best situations often involve a mountain with a valley.
The specific benefits of exposure and training at altitude have a distinct timeline. One should pay special attention to this timeline when considering a training camp at altitude. The longer an athlete remains at altitude, the more performance improves, but it never quite reaches the values that are obtained at sea-level. Acclimatization and adaptation rates depend upon the individual and are not dependent on the athlete’s level of fitness. Some individuals might adapt quickly while others might never acclimatize and continue to suffer mountain or altitude sickness while at altitude, seriously curtailing their training or worse. While blood changes start to occur immediately upon arrival to altitude, some of these changes might take as long as three months. The best duration of stay at altitude is still uncertain, but there are strong clues from changes in the concentration of erythropoietin in blood during altitude exposure. The concentration of erythropoietin rises in the first day at an altitude of 2500 meters. After two weeks, it is still high but declining; after four weeks it is back to baseline. In consideration of this information, one should consider altitude camps potentially as short as 3 weeks and up to 3 months when considering other adaptations besides hematological. A curtailed workload should also be considered before arrival at altitude to ensure the athlete is not fatigued upon arrival to altitude as well as a reduced workload for the first few days at altitude for the athlete to acclimatize.
While the optimal scheduling of a sea level training camp can be linked with a higher volume or more intense training period designed for the biggest potential impact on an upcoming race/event or season, an altitude training camp should be closely linked to a peak event in the athlete’s season due to the transient nature of the potential benefits of altitude training. If an increase in red blood cell mass is the main factor in an increase in sea level performance upon return to sea level, athletes and coaches should consider performing as close to return from altitude as possible (pending adequate recovery). Although, the beneficial gains in hematological parameters (blood values) from exposure to altitude may remain elevated for some time after altitude exposure, these changes might not be linked to improved sea level performance. Due to the potential of deteriorated performance several months after altitude training due to the depression of red blood cell production and its potential anemia, I would not recommend training at altitude to kick-start your season.
Will Altitude Training Increase My Sea Level Performance?
Even when all the variables above are considered and the perfect altitude training scenario is constructed, the benefits might be only lore and steadfast beliefs by coaches that adhere to anecdote and altitude tent company marketing, yet are unproven by research. Exposure and adaptation to altitude elicit some of the same physiological changes that accompany endurance training. However, at the present time, there is little evidence in the scientific literature to suggest that altitude training and the adaptations that accompany it are specific to sea level performance for endurance athletes. This is the main reason for not including altitude in a training camp when an improvement in sea level performance is desired.
Training camps with a reduction in life stresses and increases in intensity and or volume provide the greatest benefit to athletes when they are scheduled in regard to helping an athlete through a more challenging training period or preparing for an event specific to their goals. Training at altitude usually doesn’t meet these criteria, but under certain circumstances such as preparation for an event at altitude or learning pacing strategies for an event at altitude, training at altitude can be beneficial. The same thought process regarding timing, duration and specificity should be used in preparation for a camp leading to an event at altitudel. So, if you have any high altitude events on your calendar like the Tour of the Gila, Leadville or the Triple Bypass, come out to the high country of Colorado and enjoy the beautiful scenery and prepare for your event!
This article was originally written by Michael Hanna. Michael worked as clinical exercise physiologist at the Children’s Hospital in Denver, Colorado, performing maximal and sub-maximal cardio-pulmonary stress tests to assess the status of patients with known cardiovascular disease. In almost every case a new perspective was needed to examine the results because of the potential implications that altitude might play in each patient’s physiology. While working at the United States Air Force Academy Human Performance Lab, he examined the time line of acclimatization to altitude of the different physiological systems in cadets, comparing changes in hematological and performance values of sea-level cadets to their moderate-altitude peers.