Health and Fitness

Altitude Training: Why Athletes use it to Increase Fitness

Many athletes competing in endurance events, such as marathons or triathlons, use altitude training as a critical part of their preparation. Even athletes who are more focused on shorter distance racing, such as sprint swimmers, runners and cyclists, have benefited greatly from sustained exposure to conditions at high altitude. There are several reasons why altitude training works and works effectively.

Dr Joe Vigil, the 2008 Olympic running coach for team USA stated that, since 1968, approximately 95% of all Olympic and World Championship medals in the Marathon event were won by athletes who lived or trained at altitude. It can, therefore, be concluded that altitude training is necessary for success in endurance events.” This is an incredible statistic and has prompted further study that suggests the benefits of training at altitude are substantial.

But what happens at altitude that doesn’t happen at sea level? While there is generally no perceptible difference at rest, when the going gets tough, everything is amplified – you’ll tire quicker, breathing will become laboured more quickly, and some of the effects of altitude sickness may even kick in. What you can do at sea level gets challenged at high altitudes.

Take a Studio Pilates workout that lasts 40 minutes. At sea level, you may be able to go 30 – 45 seconds on a moderately difficult spring selection before the muscles really burn, you reach fatigue and need to have a rest. At altitude however (depending on how far above sea level you are), you’ll probably only be able to last 15 – 25 seconds for the same exercise, on the same springs, before you feel that burn and need to rest.

Why? There is a higher percentage of oxygen available in the air you breathe at sea level. The higher you go, the lower the availability of pure oxygen in the air. When performing aerobic exercise, such as running or swimming, which generally involve a moderate level of exertion over a longer duration (10 minutes and above), your body needs oxygen to fuel the muscles. When oxygen is restricted, your body will fatigue faster. Exposing the body to high altitude for a week or two, where it is operating on a limited oxygen causes the body to adapt and acclimatise, and improve the delivery of oxygen to the muscles.

Put simply, the reason this is effective for an athlete’s performance is that when you return to sea level, where there is a higher percentage of available oxygen in the air, your body will be much more efficient – boosting and accelerating your fitness levels.

So whether you’re training for a marathon, half marathon, road race or even a charity swim of some sort, if you really want to increase your fitness levels in a shorter period of time, altitude training might just be the way to do it.

If you don’t have a particularly mountainous training ground nearby, do an internet search on  ‘altitude training facilities’ to see if there are any of these state-of-the-art offerings close to home. Or, if you have the means to travel, and you live in Australia, Thredbo in the summer is beautiful and has some world-class facilities available for altitude training. These facilities are commonly used by many swimmers on the Australian Dolphins Swimming Team during their preparation for competitions. Additionally, other professional sports teams have embarked on altitude training camps such as the Brisbane Lions trips to Colorado and Arizona in the US in 2011, 2012 and 2013.

I’ve been lucky to use these facilities on a number of occasions and if you’re serious about improving your fitness and athletic performance I can’t recommend it enough!


Editor’s note:

Interested in events that test the body to its limits at altitude? Check out events such as Pikes Peak Ascent in the US where marathoners scale 2386 vertical metres to a total height of 4267 metres. Or the Tenzing-Hillary Everest Marathon, which is officially the highest marathon in the world, known in running circles as the race of all races. Even though trained up to the nth degree, participants still need to train in Nepal for almost a month to acclimatise to the altitude and get some exposure to the arduous conditíons and extreme physical assault on the body.



Image Credit – Lucas Clara / Unsplash

About the Author

Studio Pilates instructor, Stuart Rech, combines his experience in the health and fitness industry with more than 10 years as a national level, elite swimmer. He now devotes his time to ensuring his clients are the best people they can be, both physically and mentally.