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Altitude Training – Myth or Performance Enhancer?


What is altitude training?

Altitude training is the practice of training for a period of time at high altitude, preferably over 2,500 meters above sea level. Altitude training has been widely used by elite athletes for many decades as a way to improve endurance, but can this training actually improve performance?


When training at altitude an athlete will experience difficulty with breath and notice that they can’t train at the same intensity compared to their training at sea level. This is because at altitude the concentration of oxygen in the atmosphere is significantly reduced compared to the oxygen concentration at sea level. Oxygen is required by all tissues for cellular activity, energy production and removing waste products produced while exercising. The decreased oxygen in the atmosphere at altitude means that the body systems must work harder to obtain the required oxygen to meet the demands of body.


How does the body adapt to these changes?

Receptors in various parts of the body detect the lack of oxygen and signal neural pathways to centres in the brain to stimulate the body to increase its breathing rate. In addition to increasing breathing rate, the heart is also stimulated to beat faster and more forcefully to help pump more blood to the working muscles. Altitude training places the body under immense stress and physical challenges elite athlete to their limit.


When training at altitude for extended periods the body adapts to the new climate, and makes changes to become more efficient in in-taking, transporting and utilising oxygen in the cells. These adaptations include increasing lung capacity, with the body being able to take in more air per breath. The heart increases in size to be able to forcefully pump out more blood per beat. Another significant adaptation that the body makes is that it increases the blood volume and subsequently increases oxygen transporter molecules (otherwise know as haemoglobin) circulating in the vessels. With increased blood volume, more oxygen can be transported and made available to the cells. At the muscular level, there is also an increase in mitochondria, which are the ‘powerhouses’ of the cells responsible for energy production.

 

Altitude training is a natural and legal way to enhance performance and has seen to produce similar changes in the body to the use of performance enhancing drugs, minus the obvious potential health dangers of the use of illegal substances.

 



It is these adaptations that elite athletes want to develop while training at high altitude, which can give them the edge over their opponents when they return for competition at a lower altitude. Research has demonstrated a potential link between altitude training and enhanced performance, but at this stage the scientific evidence behind this understanding is limited. However, if you talk to many elite coaches they swear by the practice to improve performance.




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