What’s The Real Story With Altitude Training?

Getting faster isn’t simply a matter of getting high and cranking out the miles.

Getting faster isn’t simply a matter of getting high and cranking out the miles.

If you’re a distance runner — even one who hasn’t left your seaside home since 1983 — when you hear the term “high altitude,” you don’t even have to think about it: It’s an unqualified good thing if you can get it.

It’s EPO, the natural way. It’s bottled oxygen without the bottle. It’s minutes off your 10K or marathon time. The Africans are born there, the best Americans congregate in places like Mammoth Lakes and Boulder and Flagstaff, and if you have the time, means and motivation, you’ll become a better, stronger, and faster distance runner after spending some time on high.

But wait. Is it really that simple? If only it were.

This series of articles will explore a number of aspects of high-altitude training, which I will arbitrarily define as any training done at one mile (5,280 feet) above sea level — the altitude at which I type these lofty words — or higher.

RELATED: Altitude Training For Non-Elite Runners

I’ll start with the physiological basics, move on to a discussion of what constitutes savvy versus unsophisticated altitude training, explore the issue of individual response to altitude, jump down to a discussion of how to take advantage of altitude gains at sea level, and finish with tips for people visiting high-altitude locations for the first time and on a limited-time basis. By the end of the series, whatever doubts or misconceptions either one of us might have held about altitude training will hopefully have been dissolved.

Why Get High?

Why do runners and other endurance athletes move to high altitude environments in the first place? Although the scenic grandeur in such locales is usually considerable, this is not usually a motivating factor. The main reason runners head for the hills is because high-altitude air contains less oxygen than sea-level air, a situation that forces the body to compensate in a variety of ways conducive to improved distance-running performance.

Almost immediately upon moving to high altitude, your kidneys start cranking out increased amounts of erythropoetin (EPO), the hormone responsible for stimulating red blood cell (RBC) production in bone marrow. There is a lag period of about 10 days before RBC levels rise, and with it, your body’s capacity for transporting oxygen from your lungs to your muscles and other tissues.

I’ll mention some other physiological changes later, but for now, realize this: Living and training solely at high altitude is not enough to make you a faster runner. That’s a bummer, and the reason is that despite your elevated RBC count — reflected as an increase in hemoglobin and hematocrit values — you’ll experience a detraining effect. No matter how well acclimatized to high altitude you are, you can’t bang out the anaerobic speed intervals, such as repeat 400s and 800s at mile to 5K race pace, that you need in abundance as a middle-distance runner and need to a lesser degree in the long distances. This is where “live high/train low” comes into play.

Up And Down

In 1996, Benjamin Levine and James Stray-Gunderson led a team that conducted a landmark study that was published in the Journal of Applied Physiology. The researchers divided 39 highly trained runners (men with recent 5K times under 16:30 and women faster than 18:30) into three groups: a high/high group that lived and trained exclusively in Deer Valley, Utah (about 8,000 feet), a high/low group that lived in Deer Valley but trained in Salt Lake City (about 4,000 feet) and a low/low group that remained at sea level (near San Diego) for the duration of the experiment.

After a 5K time trial and a four-week normalization training period at sea level for all subjects, the groups spent four weeks in their respective environments, and then all of the runners performed sea-level 5K time trials at one, two, and three weeks post-altitude-specific training phase. The researchers found that the high/low group significantly improved their 5K times, while the other two groups did not.

This was in spite of the fact that RBC mass and VO2 Max improved by equal amounts in the high/low and high/high groups. This essentially proved that the high/low group’s ability to maintain their fastest training velocities at high heart rates was an absolute requirement for sea-level improvement in 5K performance. In other words, if you’re fast and think that altitude training is for you, then you had better find a way to live high and train low — and owing to basic geography, very few places in the United States present this as an option.

But there’s a work-around, and I’ll discuss it in the next article in the series.