We’ve been taking sports seriously for well over 100 years, testament to the first Olympic games held in Greece in 1896. While international sports science though is still a relatively new concept with more work being carried out in research and development every year.
One of the newer discoveries of sports science is high altitude training. 20 years ago no one had any idea of the benefits of training at altitude, now though, well you don’t even need to be at altitude to get results, you can create your own artificial alpine environment with an altitude tent - and the expensive price tag isn’t putting people off.
What is High Altitude?
High altitude is considered any height over 2400m above sea level. At this height there is a lower air pressure, which means less oxygen available (the same way a plane that loses cabin pressure will need to provide passengers with oxygen masks, simply because there is noticeably less oxygen available in the air up there.)
So what does that mean for training?
Training in thin air means your muscles are starved of oxygen. The more intense your workout, the faster your muscles burn oxygen so the more you need, no matter where in the world you are. The issue is that training hard at 2400 meters above sea level or more means there is just not enough oxygen available. This lack of fuel makes your muscles crave oxygen and send emergency signals throughout your system. When your body acknowledges the limited oxygen supply it will respond by increasing the amount of red blood cells you produce. More red blood cells mean more oxygen can be delivered at one time. Basically your body will do what it needs to in order to regulate so you feel the same as you do when you are training or competing at sea level.
This process isn’t instant, it will take a few days at least. First your body needs to understand the threat and find a solution, then it will take action and start producing more red cells and when there are enough new red blood cells you will start to feel the difference (i.e. you feel like you can breathe normally when you ride). To get the maximum benefits you really need to live, train and sleep at high altitude for at least one month, this is when your red blood cell count really kicks into overdrive.
So what are the benefits to training and sleeping at high altitude?
All this really doesn’t count until you get back to lower ground. When you return to a lower air pressure you maintain a high red blood cell count for two to three weeks, which means you get loads of oxygen with very little effort.
We know that when you train hard (or are competing in a high intensity event) your muscles burn oxygen faster and require more oxygen to maintain that intensity.
Thanks to your supercharged red blood cell count you now have more than enough oxygen to go around with every breath you take. That means your muscles can work harder for longer with less muscle soreness afterwards and also less recovery time.
It’s a more efficient use of your body for exercise purposes to allow increased speed and endurance compared to someone who has only ever lived and trained at sea level.
While some athletes will stay in high altitude training camps for a month, there is another option of “Live High, Train Low”, where athletes sleep in an altitude tent or travel to high altitudes to stay overnight but continue to train at low altitudes during the day.
That means you don’t have to wait a full month to see and feel the benefits.
It also means that the negative effects of living at high altitude are reduced, although over a short period, like one month, the negative impact will be low. Those who live permanently in high altitude areas can’t train as hard because the exertion is too taxing on the muscles. Over time they can experience muscle loss and a weakened immune system. Elite athletes in particular can experience advanced dehydration and excessive fatigue if they train in high altitudes excessively.
You don’t need to be an elite athlete to see real gains of sleeping at altitude. Studies show that sleeping at heights of 2400m or above can have lasting affects on a person’s health in daily life as well as sporting excellence through significant weight loss and also a reduced risk of heart disease. If you are interested in sleeping at altitude for training purposes then you can increase the intensity of your low altitude training in a way that is gentler on your body and more effective.
Sleeping your way to gains on the bike? That’s freedom!