Altitude Training for Athletes

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Learn the positives and negatives of altitude training for athletes.

Altitude Training for Athletes
Altitude training has been used by professional athletes including cyclist Lance Armstrong and marathoner Paula Radcliffe, and has been linked to numerous performance and physiological benefits. Most athletes can’t training at more than 6,500 feet above sea level, however, for logistical reasons; as a result, some use altitude camps for “real” altitude training while other athletes use “simulated” altitude training. While there are several benefits to altitude training, training in environments with reduced oxygen levels also has potentially hazardous effects.

Benefits

The overall goal of altitude training for athletes is to improve your body’s capacity for exercise, which ultimately improves athletic performance, the Altitude.org website explains. This is a result of the thin air and reduced oxygen levels at altitude. Your body reacts to the altitude training by acclimating to the conditions and delivering and using oxygen more efficiently. To utilize the oxygen more efficiently, your body increases the number of blood vessels to transport blood and oxygen, improves the ability to buffer lactic acid and stimulates the production of red blood cells.

Altitude training can improve your athletic performance by utilizing oxygen more efficiently.

Concerns

Altitude training comes with certain drawbacks and health concerns. During altitude training and acclimation, the thickness of your blood and thinness of the air causes your heart to pump faster and harder, which can actually hurt performance during training. Also, training at very high altitudes over 16,000 feet above sea level can cause significant weight loss, which harms athletic performance. Another concern is mountain, or altitude, sickness, which can potentially be life-threatening, Rice University warns. Symptoms for mountain sickness include headache, decreased appetite and confusion.

Real Training

“Real” altitude training involves either living or training at altitude. Common variations include “live high, train high,” “live low, train high” or “live high, train low.” The “live high, train high” approach to altitude training focuses on maximum exposure to altitude, resulting in physiological changes, Altitude.org explains. The “live low, train high” approach focuses on living at an altitude with normal oxygen levels, then training at altitude for low oxygen levels. The “live high, train low” approach forces your body to acclimate to the atmospheric conditions then maximize training intensity at or near sea level.

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Simulated Training

“Simulated” altitude training is performed using machines or other devices to resemble the barometric pressure, oxygen levels and atmospheric conditions of altitude. Altitude tents are common training tools used by runners or cyclists, training or living inside the tent. Altitude simulation rooms can also be installed that allow you to sleep and “live” at altitude. Another simulated altitude training device is a hypoxic system that features a facemask or mouthpiece that forces you to breathe and utilize oxygen at the simulated altitude, the Higher Peak Altitude Training website reports.


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