This blog was originally posted over at Runcation Travel. You can check it out here.
Does altitude training actually increase performance? Beyond physiological outcomes like EPO and red blood cell mass and maximum oxygen uptake, does it translate to an increase in actual race performance?
I remember first discussing this idea with an exercise physiology professor in graduate school. I thought about it again recently after spending 5 days in Mammoth Lakes, California. According to research, there's not much convincing evidence to suggest that elites or sub-elites should be recommended to train at altitude to increase performance (there is more evidence to show a greater benefit for untrained individuals). Sure, we know that altitude is a natural stimulator of EPO, which leads to an increase in red blood cell mass, and evidence suggests the live high, train low model of the early 1990s is preferable to the live high, train high model. But in terms of actually increasing race performance? The scientific evidence isn't overwhelming, and the majority of study designs aren't considered to be scientifically "gold standard." In fact, as of a review published in 2016 in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, there was still yet to be any research employing a double-blind, placebo-controlled, cross-over trial when studying the effects of altitude training.
So why do most of the top distance runners in the world go to live or train at high altitude at some point in their season or career? Any why do people go to train at altitude for stints under 2 weeks (when research doesn't show a substantial increase in red blood cell mass until over 2-4 weeks)? And why am I writing this post on a site where I market a week-long high altitude training camp for runners in Chamonix?
Personally, I think the training at altitude has benefits beyond the physiological.
First, the environment of most high altitude training camps are conducive to a training lifestyle. From my experience running in the U.S. mountain towns of Mammoth Lakes to the European training hub of Chamonix Mont Blanc to working in Kenya's "Home of Champions" by the Rift Valley, one thing is common: a simple lifestyle prevails. Soft surfaces, a group community of like-minded athletes, fresh food, and limited distractions during down time from training are key ingredients to training hard and most importantly, recovering well. You might run fast, but life slows down, and this type of environment eliminates added stressors found in our daily routine and offers a chance to reconnect with the simple joy of running in the beautiful natural setting of the mountains.
Second, and perhaps most importantly, there's the mental component to spending time at high altitude. Running at over 7,000 feet is hard, and it's not just hard during the last interval or the end of a progressive long run. Recovery runs are hard. Easy paced long runs are hard. In my experience, any run over an hour at 7,500 feet requires you to pull out tricks from your mental tool kit that you have to use only sparingly at sea level. Training at altitude shifts your expectations, and the effects are mentally callousing. You expect to hurt, and adapt a mentally durable mindset to get through it. This type of mental approach to racing and training is an invaluable thing to return to see level with, and is, in my opinion, understudied and undervalued.
Lundby C, Millet GP, Calbet JA, et al. Does ‘altitude training’ increase exercise performance in elite athletes? Br J Sports Med 2012;46:792-795.
Noakes,TD. Altitude Training for Enhanced Athletic Performance. International SportMed Journal. 1, 2, 1, Mar. 2000. ISSN: 15283356.
Stray-Gundersen J, Chapman RF, Levine BD. ‘Living high-training low’ altitude training improves sea level performance in male and female elite runners. J Appl Physiol 2001;91:1113–20.
Wilber, RL; Stray-Gundersen, J; Levine, BD. Effect of Hypoxic "Dose" on Physiological Responses and Sea-Level Performance. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 39, 9, 1590-1599, Sept. 2007. ISSN: 01959131.