If you follow professional endurance athletes on social media, chances are you know where they usually train. Three-time Ironman world champion Mirinda Carfrae and her husband Tim O’Donnell are based out of Boulder, Colorado in the USA. Two-time Olympic medalist Nicola Spirig and four-time Ironman world champion Daniela Ryf take training camps in St. Moritz, Switzerland. Reigning Olympic champion Kristian Blummenfelt and the Norwegian squad frequent Sierra Nevada, Spain. Bemedalled trail runner Kilian Jornet trains out of Font Romeu, France. Record-breaking marathoner Eliud Kipchoge is based out of Kaptagat in the Rift Valley in Kenya. Why these locations?
Here’s what they have in common: elevation! Boulder is 1,655 meters (5,430 feet) above sea level; St. Moritz is at 1,800 meters (5,910 feet); Sierra Nevada ranges from 1,000 to 3,481 meters (11,420 feet), including Spain’s highest peak; Font Romeu is 1,828 meters (6,000 feet); Kaptagat is at 2,434 meters (7,985 feet).
There are a lot of benefits to living and training at high altitude. However, there are also some disadvantages that may surprise you! If you want to know more, read on.
Training at high elevations where the oxygen levels are lower forces the athlete’s cardiovascular and respiratory systems to work harder to bring oxygen to muscles. After a period of adaptation, the athlete begins to produce more red blood cells to compensate. When they then compete at sea level, their higher red blood cell levels allow them to use more oxygen and work harder, boosting performance. Sounds like a winning formula, right?
Most athletes acclimate during the first three weeks at altitude; during this time, they need to decrease training intensity because they aren’t getting as much oxygen as they have been used to. Their times might be slower even at the same perceived effort.
Every athlete’s response to altitude training is different, and there are still risks associated with altitude training. As stated above, if you’re not used to training in high altitudes, you might experience altitude sickness (mild symptoms are nausea, headaches, vomiting, and shortness of breath). Also, there is a sweet spot for elevation: training at altitudes higher than 2,400 meters (8,000 feet) is more stressful than beneficial to the body and can contribute to unhealthy weight and muscle loss.
There’s also the matter of timing your return to sea level to compete. Compete too soon after altitude camp and you might feel flat as your body re-acclimatises to sea level and the increased oxygen available. Many coaches agree that the effects of altitude training are at their most optimal two to three weeks after return from altitude. The beneficial effects may last from two to four months, enhancing performance in elite athletes by 1 to 2 percent. That doesn’t sound like much, but that’s the difference between the winning athlete and everyone else in the field.
For age-group athletes who don’t already live and train in high-altitude places like Colorado, going to altitude camp for weeks on end doesn’t sound feasible. If your livelihood doesn’t depend on your race performance the “return on investment” might be too low, especially when you figure costs of coaching and testing in to ensure you’re getting the desired effects. Gimmicky gadgets that restrict oxygen consumption like training snorkels and altitude sleep tents don’t have enough evidence behind them that show they work. But even shorter multiple exposures at altitude may have benefits in stimulating red blood cell production and better oxygen intake.
The key is to consult with a coach or experts about what you individually need to improve. More time spent training with precision at home may give you better results than packing up your life to train at altitude. Structuring our training programs and how we use what we currently have are underrated aspects that can help us get better every day. It might not be as sexy as altitude training, but it works.