Anyone who has gone on a trip to the mountains is well aware of the effects high altitude has on the body. Ordinary exercise quickly becomes arduous, and once out of breath, recovery feels nearly impossible. While this is a nuisance for the average person, for the ambitious endurance athlete, living and training at high altitude can be a stimulating and rewarding experience.
But how much does altitude training actually help? Will your weeklong holiday trip to Aspen be the key factor in slashing 30 minutes off your marathon time? The picture is slightly more complicated than you may imagine.
The difficulty of exercising at high altitude is a direct result of the air being thinner. Every breath delivers less of the oxygen molecules that are essential for our muscles to function properly. The further you get from sea level, the harder it gets to breathe.
Fortunately for us, our bodies are highly adaptable machines. When we go to high altitude, our bodies begin secreting the hormone erythropoietin (EPO). EPO stimulates our body to produce more red blood cells, and ultimately makes it easier to breathe during aerobic exercise. It is no surprise that EPO is also a commonly used performing enhancing drug, made infamous by seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong.
So if our bodies produce more red blood cells at high altitude, it seems like a no-brainer. Of course it will be easier to exercise once we return to sea level! Right?
Unfortunately, altitude training also comes with its costs. Because it is difficult to exercise at high altitude, it also is difficult to train fast. After returning to sea level, while your lungs will feel like they have a newfound ability to breathe, your legs will struggle to keep up.
It turns out that the ultimate strategy, like everything in life, is moderation. Professional distance runners generally pursue one of three approaches to this problem:
- Train for a few months at high altitude, then return to sea level several weeks before your peak competition. This will allow ample time for your legs to adjust to your newfound aerobic fitness.
- Live at a high altitude location, and regularly drive to train at a location closer to sea level. This is only feasible in certain locations, but Flagstaff and Phoenix, only 144 miles yet 6,000 vertical feet apart is a favorite locale amongst professional runners.
- Build a hyperbaric chamber known as an “altitude tent” that allows you to sleep on a bed that mimics high altitude, while living and training at sea level. Every night your body will be stimulated to produce more EPO, but you will still be able to train at sea level.
Unfortunately, these scenarios are only feasible for professional athletes or the most extreme personalities. But then again, maybe that trip to Aspen is about more than just hormones and molecules. Maybe the fresh mountain air and the glorious views will inspire your fitness in a way that science can’t explain.