[from August 2014….8 years ago]
Still a lot of American distance runners doing the Altitude Training thing. I’m hoping it is entering its final years of popularity.
I have never been a believer, fan, or advocate of altitude training. Whether that term means traditional altitude training or the “live high train low” method. None the less, one day back in the early to mid-1990’s I was sitting in a lecture room at the University Of Texas. In the room full of exercise physiologists were some of the top human performance researchers in the world [they were working at Univ of Texas Kinesiology dept]. They had invited a researcher in the Dallas area to give a lecture about his work on altitude training. He had just begun work on what he called “live high, train low”.
He presented his data which included conclusions attributing a large chunk of the improvement in fitness and performance to the expansion of red blood cells. A couple of the Univ of Texas researchers challenged that assertion. They challenged it since in years past, they had done studies where they infused red blood cells into people and measured the amount of improvement in related areas of fitness and performance. So they knew to what extent either infusion or altitude related increases in red blood cells affected those things. They asserted that much of the improvement in fitness and performance measures that researcher from Dallas had attributed to the expansion of red blood cells could not be accounted for by the expansion of red blood cells.
That inherently meant that something else was the cause.
I set the subject aside in my mind for many years since altitude training never seemed like a physiologically logical training method to me anyway.
In the years that followed I came across research identifying mechanisms by which a number of training stimuli at sea level lead to EPO production and red blood cell expansion. This along with studies that suggested that the cardiovascular system is not the main limiting factor on distance running performance.
Wasn’t until some time in 2011 that I returned to the subject of there being a cause other than red blood cell expansion for improvements in various aspects of fitness and performance with altitude training. It occured to me that whether runners are doing traditional altitude training or “live high train low”, in being in or near moutains, they all have in common, road runs of varying lengths that are all done on courses that inherently have a relatively high frequency of long hills of relatively significant grades. Something they don’t normally, intentionally train on with the same or similar frequency during their normal lives at sea level.
Thus one has this confounding variable in any altitude training study even for people doing the “live high train low” method since being in or near mountains inherently alters the nature of the courses one will regularly train on. Physiologically the main area of difference isn’t the altitude, its the size, length, and frequency of the hills.
In the late 1980’s, while coaching at the high school level I had designed a 4 and 8 mile course that wound and looped through a “up-scale” neighborhood near the high school because the hills there were quite lengthy [400 – 800m], steep, and frequent. The athletes and the major aspects of the training being the same, weekly or more frequent runs [fartleks] on these courses was the only significant difference. This allowed me to pick up on substantial increases in fitness from this type of training. This reinforced an experience my freshman year in college running a weekly 9 mile fartlek workout on a course that included a very hilly neighborhood near the college.
I believe we live in an era where we understand enough about the physiological aspects of altitude training that we can, with some degree of confidence, abandon the concept.
One can argue that every training program in our sport should include a base building workout done all-year-around, on a frequency of at least twice per month. That workout consisting of a road run, perhaps in fartlek form where the surges in pace are lengthy [ie. 400 – 800m or longer] on a course where the hills are long, steep, and frequent. If necessary it may be necessary to design a loop course where the loop will be repeated over and over if the number of lengthy hills in one’s area are few or far between.
One can train at a higher velocity at sea level compared to altitude, even in the “live high train low” method [since “low” often doesn’t mean sea level]. Thus, combining that benefit with intentionally seeking out and designing a road course around the superior types of hills one gets when running on or near a mountain at altitude, on can move away from and far beyond the Altitude Training era in our sport.
Like the subject of so-called “Performance Enhancing Drugs” [a.k.a. performance retarding drugs] Altitude Training is a subject matter that has long outlasted its physiological worthiness, efficacy, and usefulness in distance events performance.
“Scientifically speaking, altitude training has no effect,”
“Neither the ability to cycle far or the ability to sprint is improved on average.”
[Dr. Nikolai Nordsborg, University of Copenhagen]
“In spite of accumulating evidence that altitude training affords no advantage over sea level training, many coaches and athletes believe that it can enhance sea level performance for any athlete, whether endurance or power is the focus in their particular sport.”
“The issue of whether altitude training enhances sea level performance remains a controversial subject.”
L.A. Wolski, et al
Altitude Training For Improvements In Sea Level Performance
Sports Medicine…..Volume 22 #4….October 1996…page 251
“It has been shown that, in elite athletes, hematocrit does not correlate with performance.”
A.Legaz, J.J. Gonzales, et al
Hematocrit > 50%: An Accurate Index For Prevention and Control Of Doping In Athletes?
University Of Zaragoza…..Spanish Olympic Committee
“…..based off of a study using elite cyclists to assess Live High Train Low at a training center in the Jura mountains of France.”
“Unlike the vast majority of researchers who had investigated Live High Train Low , this team used a double-blind design, which is the gold standard for scientific research. It had been difficult to use a double-blind design in studies using natural altitude: athletes knew whether they were living in the mountains or at sea level, and so did researchers.”
“Only the lead researcher knew which athletes were assigned where; even the on-the-ground staff did not know, eliminating bias at another level.”
“The cyclists lived in the treatments for four weeks, during which time they were told to train normally, outside, at the natural 1,135 meters of elevation.”
“…..athletes living the Live High Train Low lifestyle did not increase their red blood cell mass or the erythropoietin levels….and that group did not see greater improvement in the tests and time trials…..than their control group counterparts.”
[Dr. Christoph Siebenmann, Carsten Lundby of the University of Zurich]
[Dr. Nikolai Nordsborg of the University of Copenhagen]