Training at high altitude has been used by competitive athletes as a way of improving their potential and athletic ability. This short article will explain briefly the benefits of training at altitude and what to expect if you are planning on training at altitude soon for the first time.
What are the benefits?
At altitude, the body has to acclimatise to the lower level of oxygen available in the atmosphere. A low atmospheric pressure makes the air thinner meaning each breath has less oxygen, and the blood is less oxygen-rich as it travels to the muscles. So running at high altitudes decreases the amount of oxygen getting to the muscles. Allowing the body to acclimatise to these changes improves the delivery of oxygen to the muscles. This, in theory, improves an athlete's capability to exercise, following the idea that more oxygen will lead to better performance.
As less oxygen can reach the muscles at altitude the body naturally produces the hormone erythropoietin (EPO). EPO stimulates the production of red blood cells. Having more blood cells means an adequate amount of oxygen can be delivered to your muscles while exercising at altitude. The benefits are then seen when you return to sea level, when a more than adequate supply of oxygen is being delivered to the muscles. These effects generally start to wear off at around six weeks from returning from altitude.
Typical levels of altitudes to train at are around 2000m-2500m.
Does it feel different? How should I adjust?
When you go out on your first run anywhere at altitude, most expect to be running the same pace as they do at sea level. This is where athletes have to be careful as it will take time to adjust to the thin air. Try using effort as a guide on your runs rather than pace. Forget about the pace you are running at – it is important to go by what you think feels right¦ even if each mile is a minute slower than at sea level!
You need to know how your body will react to the altitude and also how it recovers. For some people altitude training doesn't work for them and for others it does. So if it is your first time training at altitude it is very important to take time at the beginning of time at altitude to adjust.
If you are wanting to be as best prepared for altitude as you can, there are a couple of ideas that you could consider. Think about including some hills in your training sessions. Many areas at altitude are hilly, so hill sessions would help to increase your endurance and stamina to prepare you for this. Also consider focusing on effort rather than pace when you are running, as this is something that is good to get used to. Again, use effort as a guide and this will help prevent working your body more than what it is capable of when you start training in the thin air.
For most, running at altitude does feel very different. I found that the thin air caused each breath to feel a little bit tighter, particularly during training sessions and on hilly runs, when my body was working harder or to its max. I noticed that I did gradually get used to the change after 10 days or so.
What do the benefits feel like and how long do they last for?
Personally, coming down from altitude I felt great benefits. I felt my endurance had increased and that I was able to maintain my pace during races. Also my change of pace had improved, giving me an advantage over other competitors. I found these effects lasted for around 6 weeks before I felt them begin to wear off.