Why Altitude Training Is For the Birds

| Fitness


As if breathing during a cardio session isn't taxing enough, many professional athletes and fitness gurus have taken their workouts to new heights, literally. When training for competitions and races, an athlete will likely practice runs longer than the course or with weights heavier than prescribed. Doing this will increase overall endurance and strength so when the big day comes, they know they can handle it. This is the same idea behind elevation training. When you go farther above sea level, oxygen levels decrease. Trying to work out with less oxygen is going to make your performance much more challenging. Yet, the idea is to train with less oxygen, conditioning your body to deal with it and then reintroducing it to an oxygen-rich environment, where it will excel.

At least that's the idea.

Altitude training is controversial. Some athletes swear by while others feel like they're wasting time and money. There must be some sweet spot for this type of training that hasn't been pinpointed, yet.

Who would do this and why? Think about the super fast and successful runners from Kenya. These guys and gals train at home, which happens to be on a mountain. Then they travel to lower elevations and leave everyone in the dust. (Genetics definitely play a role in this, too.) You might know of a guy named LeBron James who also uses altitude training, except he doesn't climb a mountain. He is one of thousands of athletes who rely on masks and even a sleeping chamber (live high, train low) to get the same effect. The altitude trains your body to produce more red blood cells when a specific hormone called EPO, which is released when oxygen levels drop to trigger an increase in red blood cell production. Think of it this way: You need cargo trains to deliver oxygen to all parts of your body and when the supply is so scant, you increase the amount of cargo carts (in this instance, red blood cells) so thicken the spread. Your body becomes more efficient at delivering oxygen.

>> Read more: 'Tis the Season for 5Ks: How to Train

What does it feel like? Normal training levels contain 21 percent oxygen in the air. When you train in elevation, it drops between 11 and 16 percent. That's a big drop! This kind of change will put stress on the body. It might feel like your lungs are working much harder and your heart is beating faster. You definitely have to ease yourself into this type of regimen and find the magic number to how often and how long you should spend training like this. Too much and you can over-train; too little and you can waste your time (take your workout to the pool instead).

What's the main goal? You want to train hard enough and just long enough that your body adjusts by creating more red blood cells. It can take up to eight workouts to notice a difference in your normal level workouts. Click here to get the most of out your runs by knowing when to run.

Is there a downside to this type of training? Yes. Real altitude training has many variables. Attempting it without monitoring your vitals or knowing how long and how far to push it can actually cause your body to decrease in ability. Cycling Tips of Australia explains it as a cyclist reaching his or her anaerobic threshold (peak cardio) at 300 watts (energy used) on sea level and finding that same effect in altitude training using only 250 watts. They're not able to use the same intensity to reach the threshold, so when they return to a lower altitude, that 300 watts is going to feel impossible! Click here to learn more about the threshold and other behind the scenes body work!


What are the other variations to real altitude training? Not everyone has access to a mountain or time to take a trip. There are no facilities and gadgets that simulate altitude change. Here are some solutions:

  • Live high, train high: Pay to stay in an elevated location specific to altitude training for three to six weeks. You live at this level and train at this level. See more here.
  • Live high, train low: You train at normal speed and levels, but sleep in an oxygen-poor chamber. This is supposed to cause your body to still produce more red blood cells without compromising your athletic performance or intensity. Read more here.
  • Live low, train high: "You don't go to altitude; instead you do a few workouts per week while breathing air with a lower-than-normal concentration of oxygen." The evidence is lacking on this one, but read more for yourself here.
  • Masks: Filters out the oxygen levels to simulate an altitude change. If you don't worry about pace and focus solely on heart rate, you'll be able to increase aerobic endurance. Get the scoop on it here.
  • Sleeping chambers: As mentioned above, it's part of the "live high, train low" method.
  • Chamber workout rooms: You can pay to go to a facility that vacuums a percentage of oxygen from the room and pumps in more nitrogen and then work out.

Still wondering if this is something you should try? It's expensive! You can dish out up to $5,000 just for a tent to sleep in to simulate an altitude change. It can be stressful on the body and there isn't enough scientific evidence to showcase usefulness or safety. Unless you're a professional athlete looking for an edge, feel free to skip over this type of training.