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What’s the real story with altitude training?

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Altitude training is used by many athletes hoping to have a competitive edge during athletic competitions. While it is advantageous to train at altitude for competitions held at high altitude, it appears to have little effect on improved performance at sea level. 

The fundamental theory behind altitude training is simple: by exposing an athlete to an environment that is low in oxygen the body will eventually adapt to this stress by getting more efficient at transporting and using oxygen.

These adaptations are similar to those induced by regular exercise so it would be reasonable to assume that if altitude training accelerates the same physical changes as exercise then surely it works to improve performance. Simple right? Wrong!

The dispute among key altitude training experts isn’t whether or not altitude training works but rather what is the most effective application method. As with any form of training, what works for athlete A may not work for athlete B.

“It is the higher capacity to deliver fuel to muscles that athletes are interested in,” said Dr. Federico Formenti, a physiology researcher at the University of Oxford and lead author of the new study. “However, it’s not clear how long they should train at altitude or how high up they need to be to get the optimal benefits.”

Your body begins to adapt to high altitude almost immediately, and full acclimatization occurs within 15 to 20 days. When your body senses it is not receiving the amount of oxygen it is accustomed to, it begins to produce more red blood cells, which carry oxygen to your muscles. Your kidneys release a hormone called erythropoietin, which stimulates the production of red blood cells. The increased oxygen transportation from the red blood cells means your body will optimize the amount of available oxygen. The increase of red blood cells helps improve your VO2 max, which is the maximum amount of oxygen your body can obtain and use during intense exercise. However, VO2 max levels are lower at high altitude than at sea level.

There are several disadvantages to training at high altitude. The stress of a hypoxic environment has been shown to have a negative effect on the immune system. It is also necessary to avoid overtraining at high altitude because of the stress it places on your body. One study reported in the “Journal of Sports Science and Medicine” found cross-country skiers had an increased amount of the stress hormone cortisol, which may indicate an overtraining state. Another problem with high altitude training is a loss of muscle mass because of the increase in metabolic rate.