Why top athletes do high altitude training

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How can elite athletes legally obtain a competitive advantage in such a crowded field? Altitude training is one way I’ve thoroughly researched. For ten years, my colleague Jim Stray-Gundersen, M.D., and I studied altitude training using grants from the United States Olympic Committee and USA Track & Field (USATF). This was the Olympic Committee’s longest sports medicine research grant in history, and it enabled us to publish the definitive paper on altitude training in the Journal of Applied Physiology.

Olympic athletes Emma Coburn, Jenny Simpson, Galen Rupp, Paul Chelimo, Matthew Centrowitz, Evan Jager, as well as Olympic swimmers Michael Phelps, Ryan Murphy, and Katie Ledecky rely on altitude training to shave seconds off their races. However, the benefits for noncompetitive athletes are significantly less evident – despite gimmicky goods like “high elevation” training masks attempting to persuade you differently.

What exactly is altitude training?
In sports medicine, “high altitude” often refers to 7,000 to 8,000 feet above sea level or more. Low altitude is defined as being less than 4,000 feet above sea level.

You take in less oxygen each breath at high elevations than you would at lower altitudes. This means that each of your breaths will give less oxygen to your muscles. This may appear to be a negative thing, yet living at higher altitudes and becoming accustomed to breathing “thinner” air might improve elite athletes’ athletic performance at lower altitude events.

Athletes feel like they have to exert more effort to perform as effectively as they do at sea level during training at high altitudes. altitude-induced hypoxia, which is a decrease in the amount of oxygen given to the muscles to burn fuel and create energy, causes an increased rate of perceived exertion.

Elite athletes acquire more red blood cells as they acclimatize to high altitudes, allowing their blood to transport more oxygen. When they compete at lower altitudes, they naturally boost their muscles since there is more oxygen available. This blood-expanding effect can boost elite athletes’ performance by 1 to 2%. While this may appear to be a minor improvement, it might mean the difference between a competitive team making the final cut and earning a medal.

Elite athletes have traditionally lived and trained at high altitudes, such as Colorado Springs, Colo. However, our study has shown that following what Dr. Stray-Gundersen and I call the “live high, train low” method is more beneficial. To acclimatize their bodies to reduced oxygen levels, elite athletes should live and train in high-altitude settings. They should, however, train harder and compete at lower altitudes, where the muscles can work harder with the most oxygen available for aerobic performance.

How does the adage “live high, train low” work?
Our “live high, train low” research serves as the foundation for most American elite-athlete altitude programs. Athletes must spend most of their time – 12 to 16 hours per day – at the sweet spot of roughly 8,000 feet above sea level to benefit. They may acquire altitude sickness, have reduced plasma volume levels, and have insufficient sleep patterns if they ascend too far. Training should take place at or near 4,000 feet above sea level. Although research is conflicting as to how long an athlete needs to train at low altitude for best benefit, it is vital to do all high-intensity workouts.

Many athletes who live high and train low travel to nearby cities or communities for training. Alberto Salazar, for example, is a long-time running coach who has trained many competitive competitors in Utah. The runners lived in Park City, Utah, around 7,000 to 8,000 feet above sea level. For intense training sessions, they commuted to adjacent Salt Lake City, which is approximately 4,200 feet above sea level. This was the region where we demonstrated that living high and training low is effective. Mo Farrah and Galen Rupp trained there, as have many other successful distance runners. Rob Chapman, the USATF’s director of sports science, was one of my previous fellows. He produced one of the seminal studies in our profession and has been a long-time supporter of live high, train low.

The U.S. Olympic Committee’s chief sports physiologist, Randy Wilber has created his unique approach to our program. He resides in Colorado Springs, which makes it tough to get to lower elevations. So his athletes train in “altitude chambers” a couple of days a week, where they work out on treadmills and breathe with supplemental oxygen. Dr. Stray-Gundersen devised portable oxygen canisters to imitate exercise at a lower level, which the U.S. Ski and Snowboard team used while living and training at high altitudes.

I regularly keep in touch with Rob and Randy, and we attend Olympic Committee high-altitude training summits every few years. Coaches, sports scientists, and others involved in altitude training gather at these seminars to discuss the most recent altitude studies and proven approaches that elite athletes can employ. One of the reasons more athletes are drawn to this program is the growing number of powerful people who subscribe to it. Some sports officials, however, believe that athletes who use altitude training have an unfair advantage.

Why is altitude training contentious?
Altitude training does modify the physiology of the body to get a competitive advantage. However, lumping the program in the same category as doping is not proper. Altitude training, in my opinion, allows great athletes who wish to play by the rules to compete against dopers.

When more oxygen is available during lower-altitude competitions, the muscles get a natural boost from altitude training. The drawback is that athletes simply cannot train as hard at high altitudes, no matter how severe the exercise appears to be. Many of the indicators athletes use to determine how hard they’re training – weariness of muscles, laborious breath, speed of movement – change at high altitude, making it easy to overtrain. On the other hand, elite athletes can benefit from the live high, train low regimen with properly controlled exercise, lots of relaxation, and adequate acclimatization time.

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