Altitude Training Basics

May 9, 2023

Disclaimer: This article is meant to provide general information about altitude sickness & acclimatization. It is not meant to provide medical, training, or any other form of advice. Altitude sickness is a serious condition, please seek the advice of a medical professional if you are worried about experiencing any of the symptoms of altitude sickness.

For more information, see our article onAltitude Sickness & Acclimatization.

Why should you use altitude as part of your training?

Many mountain athletes use altitude training as a way to enhance their performance and endurance. The basic idea behind altitude training is that by exposing the body to lower oxygen levels at high altitude, it can stimulate adaptations that improve performance at sea level.

Some of the benefits of altitude training include:

•   Increased Red Blood Cell Production: Exposure to lower oxygen levels at high altitude can stimulate the body to produce more red blood cells, which can increase the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood. This can improve endurance and aerobic performance at sea level.

•   Improved Oxygen Utilization: Altitude training can also improve the body's ability to use oxygen more efficiently by increasing the number of capillaries and mitochondria in the muscles. This can improve endurance and delay the onset of fatigue during exercise.

•   Enhanced Ventilatory Response: Exposure to lower oxygen levels at high altitude can also increase the body's respiratory rate and depth, which can improve ventilation and oxygen uptake during exercise.

•   Mental Toughness: Training at high altitude can also provide mental benefits by forcing athletes to push through discomfort and challenging conditions. This can improve mental toughness, resilience, and the ability to cope with stress.

It's worth noting that the effects of altitude training can vary depending on the individual, the duration and intensity of the training, and other factors such as the altitude and climate of the training location. Additionally, altitude training may not be appropriate for all athletes or individuals with certain health conditions. It's important to consult with a qualified coach or medical professional before beginning altitude training.

Fun Fact: Ever wonder why there are so many professional endurance athletes that live in Boulder, Colorado? Part of it is the proximity of world class trails, crags, and outdoor spaces to train, but the other part is the altitude. Boulder is at 5,430 feet (1,655 meters) of elevation, which is a perfect balance of providing an altitude stimulus without significantly inhibiting recovery. 

How should you use altitude as part of your training?

There are several ways to use altitude for training:

•   Live High, Train Low: This method involves living at high altitude (typically above 2,000 meters or 6,500 feet) for an extended period of time while training at lower altitudes. The idea is to take advantage of the physiological adaptations that occur at high altitude while still being able to train at a higher intensity at lower altitudes where the air is denser and the oxygen levels are higher.

•   Intermittent Hypoxic Exposure (IHE): This method involves using devices that simulate high altitude environments to intermittently expose the body to lower oxygen levels during training sessions. This can include devices such as hypoxic tents, masks, or chambers. The goal is to create a hypoxic stress on the body to stimulate adaptations that improve performance.

•   Altitude Training Camps: Many athletes and teams will travel to high altitude locations for training camps to take advantage of the physiological adaptations that occur at high altitude. This can include activities such as hiking, running, cycling, and other endurance activities.

It's important to note that altitude training can have potential risks and should be done under proper guidance. Overexposure to high altitude can lead to altitude sickness and other health complications, and proper acclimatization and monitoring are critical for safety and effective training. In addition, altitude is an additional stress on your body and acclimatization takes a significant amount of energy! Taking care to rest, hydrate, fuel, and avoid overtraining while placing an additional stress on your body. Just like you would when you are increasing your training volume or intensity, adding altitude should be done in a controlled and methodical manner to avoid unnecessary additional injury risk. 

Heat Training: Can you use it as a substitute for altitude training?

If you are living in an area that does not provide ready access to altitude, there are some things you can do to approximate the stress of altitude and prepare your body for high altitude events. One of those things is heat training. 

Heat training and altitude training are two different physiological stressors that can have some similar effects on the body, but they cannot be used as exact proxies for one another.

Both heat training and altitude training can lead to an increase in plasma volume, an increase in red blood cell production, and improvements in endurance performance. However, the mechanisms by which they achieve these effects are different. Altitude training primarily stimulates the body to produce more red blood cells, while heat training primarily leads to an increase in plasma volume and adaptations that improve heat tolerance.

Additionally, the timing and duration of the adaptations to heat and altitude training can be different. The body's response to altitude training tends to occur over a longer period of time, with peak effects typically seen after several weeks or months of exposure. In contrast, heat training can lead to more rapid adaptations, with some studies reporting improvements in endurance performance after just a few days of heat exposure.

While heat training can provide some benefits for endurance athletes, it cannot completely replace altitude training as a training method. However, heat training can be used as a complementary training method to help prepare for competition in hot environments or to supplement altitude training when it's not feasible to train at high altitude.

Want to keep learning?

Here are some resources to learn more about using altitude to train for endurance events:

This website provides information on altitude training, including the physiology behind it, training methods, and tips for acclimatization. It also has a directory of altitude training facilities and coaches.

This website offers a variety of resources for endurance athletes, including articles and blog posts on altitude training and how to incorporate it into a training plan.

This website, created by running coach Steve Magness, offers a range of resources for endurance athletes, including articles and podcasts on altitude training and its effects on performance.

This organization provides resources for strength and conditioning professionals, including articles and research on altitude training and how to incorporate it into training programs.

This website provides information on altitude training, including research on its effects on performance and guidelines for safe and effective training at high altitude.

Additional References & Resources:

1.  "Heat acclimation and endurance training independently increase plasma volume and red cell mass in athletes" by Armstrong et al. (1985): Link

2.  "Heat acclimation and plasma volume expansion: Effects of acclimation level and exercise intensity" by Gonzalez-Alonso et al. (2000): Link

3.  "Heat acclimation improves exercise performance" by Racinais et al. (2015): Link

4.  "Heat stress increases exercise capacity in hot but not in temperate conditions: A mechanistic counter-balanced cross-over study" by Périard et al. (2015): Link

5.  "Repeated heat exposure enhances human performance and decision making during a simulated urban firefighting task" by Daanen et al. (2011): Link

6.  "Effects of sauna, diuretic-induced dehydration, and exercise on plasma volume" by Sawka et al. (1983): Link

7.  "Effect of short-term heat acclimation on endurance time and skin blood flow in trained athletes" by Lee et al. (2015): Link

8.  "Hematological and iron metabolism parameters in professional cyclists during a 4-day race at altitude" by Bonetti et al. (2009): Link

9.  "Effects of live high, train low" on performance, and physiology of competitive distance runners" by Stray-Gundersen et al. (1992): Link

10.  "Maximal oxygen uptake at sea level and at 3,090-m altitude in high-altitude natives" by Richalet et al. (1992): Link

11.  "Effects of intermittent hypoxic training on exercise performance and lactate metabolism in judo athletes" by Nakamura et al. (2012): Link

12.  "Effect of 3-week high-altitude acclimatization on blood composition and hormone concentrations" by Gore et al. (1996): Link

13.  "Live high-train low and high" lactate training" improve 1000-m running performance in competitive runners" by Katayama et al. (2004): Link

14.  "The effect of altitude training on cycling performance: A systematic review and meta-analysis" by Saunders et al. (2009): Link