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What is Altitude Training?

By Tara Barnett
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Altitude training, sometimes called an altitude camp, is a way of encouraging the body to produce more red blood cells, which can improve endurance when performing activities at lower altitudes. This kind of training ideally involves living at a high altitude and training at a lower one, because the body needs oxygen to train. While it is possible to simulate altitude training using specially modified houses and training facilities, it is more common to actually travel to high altitudes in order to train. Athletes from endurance sports typically benefit from this kind of training, but its effects will be felt by anyone who has an extended stay at a high altitude.

For the purposes of altitude training, an altitude of about 8,000 ft (2,500 m) is desirable, but any relatively high altitude will work. It can be difficult to find altitudes this high that are still fit for training, so it is common to use a lower altitude. For simulations of high altitudes, the pressure to which the athletes are exposed is not changed, but the amount of oxygen in the air is reduced. Typically, air contains around 20.9 percent oxygen at sea level, and an artificial altitude training apparatus will reduce this amount to around 15.3 percent.

The purpose of altitude training is to increase the number of red blood cells in the body. This is accomplished by harnessing the body's natural response to needing more oxygen over an extended period of time. There are people who question whether altitude training actually works by increasing the number of red blood cells or if it is even effective at all. In theory, if one is competing at sea level, the increase in red blood cells will persist for several days after leaving the high altitude, giving one a competitive edge. It can be argued that any positive effects dissipate too quickly to be useful.

While altitude training is primarily used by athletes who need increased endurance, the desired effects of high altitudes will be experienced by anyone who travels to a high altitude for an extended period of time. Many people experience a notable increase in energy and vigor when returning from high altitudes. Children who normally live at high altitudes can become very hyperactive when brought to low altitudes due to similar effects. It is clear, then, that the effects of altitude training can be verified, although the exact mechanism and potential for use may be up for debate.

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Discussion Comments

By umbra21 — On Oct 06, 2011

I think some athletes will sit in a hyperbaric chamber for a few hours at a time to simulate being at high altitudes without actually having to go there. It's probably not as effective, as they can't actually train in the chamber.

I don't know how common this is though. I do know that some people react really badly to altitudes, so probably not all athletes can take advantage of this kind of training.

One of my friends had high altitude sickness while mountain climbing and she said it was awful. She couldn't finish the climb and had to go back down with a couple of other climbers from the group.

By pastanaga — On Oct 05, 2011

@pleonasm - I'm sure they have more evidence than just people feeling better when they come back down off a mountain. I know that one of the reasons people from Kenya dominate racing is supposed to be because they live in a high altitude area. And if being there does create more red blood cells, then they can probably measure that.

Although I've heard one of the ways of cheating that can be difficult to detect, is by injecting yourself with your own red blood cells (collected earlier) to simulate the effects of a high altitude training programme. And it's really hard to detect, so maybe they can't measure it accurately.

By pleonasm — On Oct 05, 2011

I wonder though if that experience of having more vigor and energy after returning from high altitudes is a false one.

I mean, people who are at high altitudes are going to have less energy while they are there. And if they are there for a few days, that's going to start feeling like the normal way to be, because of high altitude acclimatization.

So, when they come back down and suddenly feel back to normal, the normal levels of energy will feel like more than usual.

So, they get a feeling of energy. After all, perception of a thing is quite a poor way of studying a thing. It's like the placebo effect. Just because someone thinks a condition is having an effect on them (and just because they actually feel that effect) doesn't mean that the condition itself is actually affecting them.

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