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Altitude Training – (not) only something for top athletes?

Altitude Training – (not) only something for top athletes?

e are probably all familiar with pictures of top athletes preparing for upcoming competitions in the Engadin (approx.. 1850 m above sea level) or on other altitude levels. It is also not surprising that altitude training (hypoxia training) is part of a top athlete’s standard training plan. The answer to the question why not only top athletes but also recreational athletes like you and me benefit from training at altitudes lies in the increased production of red blood cells and in the increase in energetic turnover. Whether mountain biker, cyclist, jogger, rower, swimmer or weekend hiker 😊: experience the positive effects on performance and health when you train on the “white tops”. 

Changed oxygen partial pressure and the adaption process of your body 

The oxygen percentage in the air is independent of the height above sea level and amounts to approx. 21% of the atmospheric pressure all over the world. It makes no difference, if you are the sea or on the Mount Everest. With an increasing altitude, however, the air becomes thinner and the air pressure decreases. These changes are accompanied by a change in the so-called oxygen partial pressure. Oxygen partial pressure is the partial pressure of oxygen dissolved in the arterial blood as a proportion of the total pressure of all gasses dissolved in the blood. 

The higher you are above sea level, the lower the partial pressure of oxygen in the arterial blood. In order to compensate for this reduction, a number of adaptation mechanisms in the body take lace to ensure that the body continues to receive sufficient oxygen. These adaptation mechanisms include, for example, sensitization of breathing activity. The organism compensates for the lower partial pressure of oxygen in the arterial blood with an increase breathing frequency and an increased respiratory minute volume. 

At the same time, the body stimulates the production and release of erytrhopoetin (EPO). EPO is produced in the kidneys and stimulates the production of red blood cells (erythrocytes) in the bone narrow. The body produces more hemoglobin, a protein of red blood cells, which is crucial for the binding and transport of oxygen in the blood. The more hemoglobin there is in the blood, the more oxygen can be bound and transported. 

Positive effects of altitude training on performance and health

Therefore, the decisive point of altitude training is an improved oxygen transport capacity in the blood as well as an improved oxygen utilization, which leads to the following positive effects 

  • Increased energy conversion and improved (lipid) metabolism: The general increase in exercise intensity due to the reduced partial pressure of oxygen increases the energetic turnover and improves the (lipid) metabolism. This leads to an increase in calorie consumption, to which the body reacts with increased activity of glycolytic enzymes and a shift in energy metabolism towards carbohydrate burning. This effect of increased energy turnover can be used, for example, as a support for weight reduction.
  • Improved endurance performance: Due to the increased production of red blood cells, more oxygen is transported through the body. More oxygen in the body means that the organism can be provided with sufficient oxygen over a longer period of time, so that endurance performance increases. The next jogging round in the "plains" will be much easier for us. 
  • Displacement of the aerobic/anaerobic threshold (lactate threshold): Hypoxia training leads to a shift in the lactate threshold, i.e. the intensity level in which the oxygen supply and oxygen consumption in the cells is still balanced or lactate formation and degradation are just in equilibrium (steady state). An improved oxygen supply to the muscles delays lactate formation, i.e. the lactate threshold is only reached at a "later" point in time or at a "higher" intensity level. 
  • Changes at a muscular level: The increased oxygen transport capacity of the blood leads to an increase in the muscular oxygen storage (so-called myoglobin). This in turn leads to a better supply of oxygen to the muscles and more oxygen can be supplied to the physiological combustion process in the individual muscle cells.
  • Faster regeneration: When returning to the "plains", the athlete notices a faster regeneration after stress due to the increase in aerobic capacity. 

Acclimatization and alternatives of altitude training

Those who want to achieve the best possible training effect (e.g. as preparation for competitions) should think about a longer training period, ideally about 2-4 weeks on at least 1900m-2300m. The different ways of hypoxia training are:

  • Sleep high – train high: With this approach, the athlete trains and sleeps at the same height level. This concept is very effective in preparing for a competition at altitude. 
  • Sleep low – train high: The athlete trains at an altitude level, but continues to sleep in the "plains". This alternative is based on the assumption that even a brief stay at altitude can lead to adaptation symptoms (e.g. EPO release). The disadvantage of this training is that no acclimatization can take place. The physical strain is greater and can cause increased fatigue symptoms. 
  • Sleep high – train low: The athlete continues to train in the "plains", but spends most of his time at an altitude level (approx. 2000 to 2500 m above sea level). The advantage of this method is that the acclimatization can take place under resting conditions and thus negative side effects are usually absent.

Even those who do not train according to an individual plan can benefit from activities at an altitude level. However, the effects of altitude training will be much weaker: Although it can be assumed that - depending on the altitude and duration of the stay - an increased energy metabolism can be observed; improved endurance performance, for example through (simple) hikes, cannot be expected to the same extent as would be the case with targeted training. At this point, it is important to note that recreational athletes who do not regularly train or stay at an altitude level should plan an acclimatization phase of 2-4 days.

Train high and enjoy to the fullest

The hypoxia training is, therefore, not only something for competitive athletes. Recreational athletes should also include such a training session in their training plan and benefit from the positive effects triggered by the body's mechanism for adapting to the lower oxygen partial pressure. These are - as many studies show - proven, but individually different, so that everyone has to find their own way. Even without a specific training plan, activities at an altitude level, such as hiking or mountain biking, are healthy for the body and soul. The combination of altitude training and High Intensity Interval Training can enhance the above mentioned effects, because there is an intersection in the training effects between both training methods.

Ain’t no mountain high enough – why not exchange the running track in the Allmend or along the Reuss for one or two trail runs or a mountain bike tour in the mountains, to profit from the positive effects and enjoy the wonderful nature!

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