Altitude Training – Some Critical Facts

I just read a wonderful comprehensive article written by James Smoliga PhD (exercise physiologist) in the recent edition of Track Coach (Summer 2009 #188). Published by Track and Field News this publication is reliable and up-to-date with great reviews of both current research on training as well as elite level training programs.

I often get questions and overhear comments regarding altitude training. Too often comments are based on partial information and often the information is out of context. I’ll first start with some wonderful facts about altitude training based on worldwide research new and old (1970-2007 cited).

Fact: Research on the effects of altitude use the term “high altitude” because modest altitude training has not been found to produce beneficial effects. “High altitude” is most often defined as about 8000 feet (2500m) in elevation. So for altitude training purposes in Arizona: Flagstaff is marginally OK at 7000 ft. but the higher terrains around Flagstaff are perfect. Payson is not OK at 4921 ft. Prescott is not OK at 5368 ft. Phoenix and Tucson are most certainly not OK at 1117 ft. and 2389 ft. respectively.

Fact: Runners from around the world use faulty logic in concluding that altitude training is the key to better performances. Much like the myth of more mile and the “secret of 100 mile weeks” they conclude that if so-and-so is a good runner and they trained at altitude then – of course – it is the altitude that made them good. Though this may be true for some runners it most certainly is not a true statement for many runners. The fact is that we have no idea if so-and-so would have achieved similar results had they simply stayed at sea level.

Fact: There are “responders” and “non-responders” to altitude training. That means two things: what works for one runner may not work for another. And altitude training may not work at all on some runners. It appears to be a genetic predisposition issue.

Fact: Moving much higher in altitude has diminishing returns on the effects on our bodies. There are not bigger benefits for higher altitudes. Therefore, like running “miles” more is not necessarily better.

Fact: Hypobaric altitude simulators may yield similar results to high altitude living, it does so when the athlete is in them approximately 16 hours per day. Therefore, sleeping in one every night is unlikely to have physiological benefits (unless you sleep an awfully lot).

Fact: Altitude training carries additional risks with it including: sleep disruption that impedes recoveries and may reduce immune system’s ability to fight infections; over-training injuries due to additional stresses on body. Data is poor at this time to make a clear cause-effect statement on these however these are clear possibilities.

Fact: All athletes are guaranteed to have an immediate decline in performance in the first few weeks at altitude.

Fact: Just going “high altitude” is not sufficient if duration is not considered. It requires at least a week for blood volume to respond while other adaptations take up to four weeks to occur in our bodies. Therefore, week-long training programs at altitude offer little advantage to runners.

These previous facts have actually been well known for a long time. And though the article also went into the pros and cons of various altitude training approaches (Live High Train High; Live High Train Low, Live Low Train High, hypobaric altitude simulators); what was of special interest to me was a critical conclusion and advice that Dr. Smoliga made – paraphrased…

Cost-to-benefit ratio of altitude training lies far behind other approaches to improved performance. Namely: improved diet, specialized weight programs, therapeutic massage, range of motion/stretching exercises, and last and most certainly not least – having a quality training program and coach! Even an athlete who does adapt well to altitude training may not experience a net benefit if all these aspects of training aren’t in order.

Since one benefit to altitude training can be mental toughness and belief that it will help you. I’ll add the use of a mental games coach as well.

Dr. Smoliga’s bottom-line advice: Only when all the other approaches are optimized and the athlete has the bankroll to go further should altitude training be pursued. (And remember it may not make any difference anyway if you’re a non-responder.)

Runners and triathletes are like the rest of our society. We want quick fixes and a “magic pill” like altitude training. It doesn’t exist. But, we’ll use it as an excuse for someone beating us. Triathletes and runners will spend thousands and thousands of dollars on more equipment such as lighter bikes and more shoes but it does not replace a poorly designed training program. The point is that altitude training is not a magic pill. Altitude training won’t make most people better runners because there are so many other aspects of training lacking. It is simply a clear fact that altitude training will not make champions or give PRs to an athlete who isn’t training properly. And there is no substitute for that – no pill, no change of venue, no excuses.

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About Dean Hebert

I’m a mental game coach, author and speaker. I work with individual athletes, parents, coaches, and teams on sports performance enhancement. Beyond my academic post-graduate work in sports psychology - the psychology behind athlete performance – I am a certified Mental Games Coaching Professional (MGCP) and certified hypnotherapist. I’ve authored several books and hundreds of articles. “Coach, I didn’t run because…” (2008) is a seriously light-hearted look at making excuses not to workout and how to overcome them. “Focus for Fitness” (2009) and “Screw the Goals Give me the Donut” (2010) are two of my eBooks on mental game approaches for the everyday athlete. I wrote these because I believe that everyone can benefit from the powerful mental techniques that the world’s best athletes use. I have been cited in Runners World, Best Health magazine (CN), SWEAT Magazine, and the Washington Examiner amongst many other publications. I have been a featured mental games coach in Runner’s World and for the internationally acclaimed trail running resource - trailrunningclub.com. I also regularly appear on sports and fitness talk shows such as LTKFitness, Runnersroundtable and for more than three years I have co-hosted a weekly video series with Coach Joe English for Running-Advice.com. I specialize in mental toughness training. My clients include tennis, synchronized swimming, golf, race-kart, soccer, motocross, volleyball, MMA, cycling (road, off-road, time-trialist), running, duathlon and triathlon, basketball, football and baseball athletes. I have coached world-class athletes and athletes internationally. I have a passion for working with youth athletes and helping them apply mental game skills and techniques to all areas of life. Most importantly, my aim is to have people enjoy sports and life to their fullest through peak performances.
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10 Responses to Altitude Training – Some Critical Facts

  1. run4change says:

    This is a great post. I have always wondered about the altitude training especially as it relates to a “high altitude” race. I have heard or read of people saying that if you go to the high altitude race location a day or week before than you are all good. I love to know the scientific facts. It is freeing.

  2. Jeff Kal. says:

    one of my former runners just got to Leadville about a week ago to prep for the altitude of the Leadville 100 – he’ll have four full weeks to acclimatize so according to this, he’ll be fine!! Says he wants to win, wouldnt that be cool.

  3. Dean Hebert says:

    Jeff.. I would love to hear about his experience.

  4. Jeff Kal. says:

    I’ll let you know how it goes for him. Back in July he hit 158 miles in one week training, including winning a 50 mile race (in Arkansas?) by 30 minutes. Those 23 year olds can run and run and run and recover like no other – dang kids!! Yesterday he did his last big run, 40 miles in Leadville up over Hope Pass twice from 9200ft to 12800 and back twice. Now a taper for two weeks then race!!

  5. I just stumbled upon this site. Thanks so much for the compliments about the article. Most of my personal research projects on running performance are currently underway (mostly evaluating the relationship between the neuromuscular system and physiologic factors associated with performance), so I have not had the opportunity to do altitude research of my own yet. But as far as the lit review I did, and talking to some of the experts, I think there is potential benefit for altitude training when done correctly, and how beneficial that is really does vary from person to person.

    I am currently developing my own website to share all sorts of information like this and hope to have it up and running by March 2010 (irunfast.com). There is a lot of science out there, but a lot of it never makes its way to the mainstream population of coaches and athletes.

    Thanks again for your interest in the article and blogging about it!

    James

  6. Dean Hebert says:

    James,
    Thank you so much for dropping by and finding me. I like your balanced objective approach. I agree, there is scientific research but… it isn’t “public friendly or public accessible.” I completely look forward to your site.

    Please keep me in mind and I’ll add you as a link. Keep up the great work!

  7. Ricardo Ignacio says:

    I am interested to know how many times a week I have to train? (in an Hypobaric) to obtain any result since I am not an athlete but I am doing it to keep fit and if my age is important? (I am 50)
    where I live this is the latest trend and cost a bit but if this is good for me I will do it.
    Any help will be much appreciated.
    Ricardo

    • Dean Hebert says:

      The only thing I have read has clearly left hypobaric chambers as an unknown as to its efficacy. Both in a practical sense (anecdotal evidence) and on the research end in labs. So my recommendation is save your money and workout more/better/smarter.

  8. Andie says:

    I have exercise induced asthma and was wondering if you had any tips for acclimatizing. I am from the east coast so the highest altitude I have ever run at has is probably about 4,000 ft. I am hoping to race this summer in Colorado so any advise would be wonderful. Thanks :)

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