The Benefits of Altitude Training

One of the best ways for runners to improve their performance is to utilize altitude training. The basic idea for altitude training is that exposing the body to the lack of oxygen at high altitudes will cause the body to produce more red blood cells to improve oxygen uptake. Once the runner races at lower altitude, the improved oxygen capacity will lead to faster times. While seemingly an excellent way to ramp up performance, there are some negatives to altitude training.

One clear negative is that the body must work much harder at higher altitude. This means that workouts that were easy at lower altitude now become very difficult. Unfortunately, this can force a runner to cut workouts back and prevent him or her from completing quality tempo runs, fartleks, and other speed sessions. To combat this problem, running coaches have developed three different strategies for altitude training.

Living high-training high (LHTH): This is the traditional method of living and training at altitude for three to four weeks about two times per year. When taking part in a LHTH session, runners generally spend time acclimatizing themselves to altitude before launching into full-bore training. LHTH does have some negatives, such as the high cost of living full time at altitude for an extended period.

Living high-training low (LHTL): The purpose of this method is to expose the body to decreased oxygen, while allowing the body to train in a maximum oxygen environment. By using this “best of both worlds” approach, a runner enjoys uninterrupted training while increasing his or her red blood cell count when not running. The negatives of this approach are the time it takes to constantly travel from high to low altitude and back. Many runners attempt to utilize this method by sleeping in “altitude tents.” These tents essentially create an oxygen deprived environment and permit the athletes to reap the benefits of high altitude without traveling. However, they are also very expensive.

Intermittent Hypoxic Training (IHE): This method involves periodic exposure to a oxygen deprived environment. For example, a runner might spend time in an altitude tent for one hour periods for three times per day. There are numerous intervals that runners can try to get the maximum benefit. The general idea is that body will increase the red blood cell count even if it is exposed to high altitude at limited variables. This enables the body to benefit from an oxygen deprived environment without suffering all of the side effects such as fatigue.

All of these methods have shown promise, but all involve a large investment of time and money and therefore are generally available only to the most elite runners. Therefore, recreational runners should not worry about what they may be missing out on with altitude training. It is unlikely that the benefits outweigh the negatives and the large expenses.

CC Image courtesy of Walter Siegmund

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