high elevation training
What to know before you go

Most weekend warriors don’t have the time or the money to head up to the mountains for a few weeks to train at high elevations. Shoot, even dedicated athletes training for majors events may not be able to get away.

And that’s a shame. Training at elevation is a well-documented way to legally change your body’s physiology to boost endurance exercise performancec. Essentially, when you’re living and exercising at high elevations, you’re functioning in a hypoxic, or oxygen-lacking, environment. At sea level, ambient air contains approximately 21% oxygen. At higher elevations, this percentage is reduced. For instance, the air  at Sports Authority Field at Mile High Stadium in Denver, Colorado contains only about 18% oxygen. That means your body has to work harder to deliver oxygenated blood to working muscles.

The immediate affects of hypoxia can actually be quite negative – your body has to work harder to deliver oxygenated blood to working muscle, which means your breath rate and heart rate speed up, and you get tired faster. Additionally, you can experience altitude sickness and tingling of the extremities as your body focuses on delivering oxygen to vital organs, rather than to your arms and legs. But with time, your body takes on physiological adaptations that counteract the negative affects and, in some ways, improve performance.

Check out the ESPN Sport Science explanation of the effects of high altitude competition >>

Physiological adaptations of altitude training

In a nutshell, the physiological adaptations of training at high elevations include:

  • Red blood cell proliferation. More red blood cells are formed to help deliver oxygen to working muscle. The more red blood cells you have, the easier it will be to deliver oxygen.
  • Decreased lactic acid tolerance when at altitude. Essentially, you can’t tolerate the buildup of lactic acid in your cells as well as you do at lower altitudes because of the excretion of base via the kidneys. This actually prevents you from being able to work as hard.
  • Increase in mitochondria and oxidative enzymes. Mitochondria are the cells’ “powerhouses” – they help turn food into usable fuel. An increase in the mitochondria and oxidative enzymes increases the body’s ability to convert fats into ATP for energy.

Why someone might want to exercise at elevation

There are a few reasons why you might benefit from exercising at high altitude:

  1. You have a race or trip planned at high altitude. If you live in San Diego, but you’ve signed up for a race in Denver, the last thing you want is to head to the mountains unprepared for the change in ambient oxygen. Giving yourself a couple weeks to train in a hypoxic environment will prepare you to tackle the race. Likewise, if you’re heading to Mt. Hood for a week of skiing with your family, prepping for hypoxia can make the overall experience more enjoyable. I’ll never forget what a bummer it was the year my husband and I went skiing on New Year’s Eve, but we couldn’t stay ’til midnight because my husband ended up with altitude sickness and we had to hightail it to a lower elevation.
  2. You’re training for a race at lower altitudes, but you want the physiological adaptations of high altitude training. While the jury is still out on the effectiveness of training at high altitudes to improve performance at low altitudes, there are high-level athletes around the world who swear by the method.
  3. To burn more calories during a standard workout. For the average fitness enthusiast, altitude training isn’t all that necessary, but because your heart rate and breath rate speed up during bouts of high elevation training, you do burn more calories. Just keep in mind that you’re also likely to experience some performance deficits – slower reaction times and decreased power output – so don’t dive into an incredibly intense training session at elevation the first time out. Work at lower intensities as you grow accustomed to the decreased oxygen availability.

High altitude training facilities

Most people don’t live at high elevations, and few people have easy access to a mountain top. Even when I lived in Oregon, I lived at an elevation of 500 feet, and it took a two-hour drive to get to the ski resorts on Mt. Hood (roughly 11,000 feet). So, for most, high altitude training hasn’t even been an easy option.

Until now.

Fitness facilities, such as Air Fit in Pleasanton, California, are using specially designed oxygen-reducing systems (in this case, the K2 by Hypoxico), to give participants easy access to a high elevation training environment, simply by stepping into a room. Instructors can determine the ambient oxygen reduction, mimicking environments up to 22,000 feet. And if you start feeling dizzy, nauseated, or tingly, you can simply step outside the room to take advantage of fully-oxygenated air.

These types of facilities aren’t all that easy to locate since the concept is still relatively new, but don’t be surprised if you start seeing more options popping up around the country, each offering a wide variety of classes and programs. For instance, Air Fit offers circuit training, rowing, cycling, and yoga classes, in addition to individual and group training options.

And while it’s certainly an interesting concept, and one that could provide benefits to athletes and those hoping to acclimatize to higher elevations before a trip, I wouldn’t put all your eggs in one basket. Physiologic adaptations from training at elevation may be proven, but the performance benefits are not 100% confirmed – they seem to be extremely individualized to athletes and sports, which means some benefit, some do not, and others may benefit during specific protocols, but not others. Like most fitness trends, give it a try, see if you enjoy it and whether you personally benefit from the experience, but don’t automatically assume it’s the solution to your training needs.

Exercising at high altitude

If you do plan to travel to a high elevation for an event or a trip, don’t underestimate the importance of preparation. If you can give yourself an extra day or two before your event to acclimatize to the higher elevation, that would certainly be beneficial. Also, plan to rest more than you typically would, and be sure to hydrate often – cold, dry air can be particularly dehydrating, especially since you expel water particles as you breathe, and you breathe at a faster rate at high elevation.

Finally, understand that you won’t necessarily be able to work as hard or as long when exercising at high altitudes. So if you typically take a six mile run without a problem, aim for three miles and see how you feel, going at a pace that feels comfortable. There have been no major records set during races at high elevations because even when people have adapted to the environment, some of the adaptations reduce the body’s ability to perform as well. Don’t expect to set records or kill your PR during a high-elevation race. It may not be impossible, but it’s certainly unlikely.

Have you trained at elevation? What was your experience? Have you seen performance benefits as a result of elevation training?

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