Many athletes consider the conditions in areas with high elevations favorable for improving their athletic performance at sea level. For them, high-elevation training introduces a heightened stimulus that is favorable in helping them gain a competitive edge. This is because elevation training triggers physiological changes as the body acclimates to an oxygen-poor environment, which may prove beneficial to athletes in training.
Learn more about these high altitude training benefits and the disadvantages of elevation training below.
High-Elevation Training Explained
In sports science, high-elevation training refers to the practice of performance training at elevations 7,000 feet above sea level or higher. At this elevation, the oxygen concentration in the atmosphere is considerably lower than at sea level. This is due to lower atmospheric pressure at high elevations, which reduces the partial pressure of oxygen.
As a result of training at altitude, athletes breathe in less air every time they inhale. This delivers considerably less oxygen to the bloodstream, lessening the amount of energy available to the cells. As a result, the body tires out more quickly, and people will feel more lethargic.
But for athletes, having less available oxygen creates ideal conditions as it provides a stimulus that forces the body to adapt to this new environment. During this process, the body compensates by activating the protein complex hypoxia-inducible factor 1 (HIF-1), which results in an increase in capillarity, the production of endothelial growth factors, and a high volume and density of the mitochondrion in the cells.
In simpler terms, physiological changes in the body result in improved intermittent running performance, higher resistance to fatigue, and an increase in the efficiency of oxygen and energy usage. All of these translate to an improvement in performance at sea level.
High Altitude Training Benefits
Training under hypoxic conditions at higher altitudes can create several physiological changes in the body that positively impact athletic performance. These include;
Improved Oxygen Delivery
During the respiration process, the lungs breathe in oxygen, which is then transported to the muscles by the red blood cells. The oxygen demands of the muscles vary, with athletes requiring more oxygen during a workout. This process becomes less efficient as the muscles demand more oxygen, which causes muscle fatigue.
But according to one 2016 study, training at altitude can help athletes recover faster from muscle fatigue through an increase in the production of erythropoietin (EPO). EPO is a hormone that aids in the production of red blood cells. This improves oxygen delivery to the muscles, which continues even at sea level.
Increased Lung Capacity
Aside from an improvement in oxygen delivery in the body, high altitude training can also increase lung capacity, which can significantly improve the performance of endurance athletes.
In a 2017 study, scientists found that simulated altitude training had a positive effect on the lungs’ maximum oxygen uptake, referred to as VO2 max. The VO2 max is the highest amount of oxygen the body can consume in periods of intense physical activity. This effect can also lead to a boost in performance when competing at sea level.
Higher Lactic Acid Threshold
Lactic acid is a byproduct of the muscle respiration process. Its accumulation in the muscles used during workouts results in the feeling athletes get when muscle fatigue occurs.
But according to one 2018 study, high altitude training increases the body’s tolerance to lactic acid. This increased lactic acid threshold enables athletes to perform for more extended periods before the muscles feel fatigued, which is helpful in competitions that require endurance.
Aids in Endurance and Performance
Considering all the benefits given above, all of these result in an overall improvement in athletic performance. For example, one study on the performance of long-distance runners found that hypoxic training conditions were effective in enhancing their athletic performance without adversely affecting their immune function. A separate UCLan study showed an increase in the performance of elite cyclists of over 10% due to training at altitude.
What are the Disadvantages of Altitude Training?
Before undergoing high-altitude training, most athletes pose the question: what are the disadvantages of altitude training? Here’s the answer: increased exposure to hypoxic conditions created by training at elevated altitudes does create several disadvantages. These include:
Increased Cortisol Levels
When the body is accustomed to sea-level conditions, training at high altitudes creates a stressful environment that could increase the production of cortisol, the stress hormone. Prolonged exposure to hypoxic conditions when training can lead to muscle breakdown due to the increased production of cortisol.
Increased Likelihood of Overtraining
As mentioned above, training under hypoxia imposes a great deal of stress on an athlete’s body, mainly when the body hasn’t appropriately acclimated to the new environment. Exerting the same amount of effort during high-elevation training has a greater effect on the body, which results in overtraining. In many instances, athletes compensate for the higher stress levels by exerting less effort during training. This, however, is counterproductive and has been shown to harm their performance.
According to the Committee on Military Nutrition Research of the Institute of Medicine, the body loses 1.6 times more water during respiration at higher altitudes than with the same rate of breathing at sea level. This is due to an altitude-induced diuresis that generally occurs during altitude acclimatization, resulting in higher rates of perspiration and urination, which can lead to possible dehydration. The diuresis stops once the body has fully acclimatized to the new elevation.
Do Altitude Training Rooms Work?
Despite some disadvantages, there is no denying the positive effects of altitude training on athletes’ bodies. This is highly beneficial for athletes with easy access to high-altitude training areas. But what about those that live far away and cannot dedicate their time to travel and train in those areas? Can the conditions be simulated? Do altitude training rooms work?
The short answer is: yes. Altitude simulation technology has enabled athletes to train under hypoxic conditions even at sea level by mimicking the conditions at high altitudes. Altitude Control Technology has a full range of altitude simulation options and air separation technology to effectively provide the right training stimuli that enable athletes to boost their athletic performance even at sea level.
Altitude Control Technology’s award-winning control system offers an accurately simulated environment and it is the choice of leading institutions worldwide, including Harvard Medical School, the Mayo Clinic, the US Air Force Academy, the University of Colorado’s Altitude Research Center and various Olympic training centers worldwide.