Considering that the majority of readers live just above sea level, it’s remarkable how many enquiries we get about altitude training. We can only assume it has something to do with cheap air fares, which lead you to think, ‘I’ve got a big race coming up… I know, I’ll pop on a plane to Peru, do a bit of running at 3,000 metres, visit some ruined temples, buy a poncho for the wife, come back twice as fit and blow the competition away on race day.’
It’s a nice idea, but before you buy that cut-priced ticket to Lima, it might help to find out what altitude training is all about. The first thing you need to get your head around is that ‘altitude training’ is a confusing description because, when it is done correctly, it doesn’t actually involve training at altitude at all.
At heights above 1,500m (Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest mountain, is 1,343m) the barometric pressure is low enough to starve the body of oxygen and the higher you go the more this effect is exaggerated. If a lot of time is spent at altitude, the long-term reduction in oxygen stimulates the body to manufacture more red blood cells as a compensation mechanism. More red blood cells means better oxygen absorption, which leads to better aerobic performance when you return to sea level.
But if you try to train intensely at altitude the reduced oxygen availability will mean that you won’t be able to train as hard, and this leads to muscle wastage and loss of power. So if you’re going to benefit from an altitude camp you need to reside at altitude and train at sea level. This is known as the ‘live high, train low’ ethos. It promote changes in your blood profile as you live and sleep at altitude, while allowing you to train at the necessary intensity to maintain muscular power.
This could prove tricky in the Andes if your only transport between different altitudes is a donkey. So your best bet is somewhere like the Alps, where you can book a posh hotel up a mountain with a nice view and then jump on a cable-car down to the valley to do your training.
A couple of weeks of high-low training is likely to improve performance by two to five per cent, perhaps more if a higher base camp is chosen. This could mean the difference between first and tenth place. Exercise caution before choosing a base camp above 2,500m because you may suffer altitude sickness and have to return to sea level to recover, which would defeat the point of going in the first place.
Finally, you should aim to get back to lightly around three days before the event you’re competing in to give yourself time to re-acclimatise.
RUNNER’S TIP HYPDXIC CHAMBERS
OK, so not all of us can get to the Alps for a week before every 10K event. This is why technology has been developed to provide hypoxic chambers where air is artificially thinned to mimic breathing at altitude. Hypoxic ‘tents’ have been used by athletes such as Lance Armstrong to sleep in, replicating the ‘living high’ aspect of altitude training. And moderate cardiovascular workouts in a hypoxic environment are thought to improve performance if done two or three times a week for 20-30 minutes. Any more than this causes muscle wastage. Some gyms are now being equipped with for this purpose.