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.