How to Get the Benefits of Altitude Training (Without Going to Altitude)
If you follow elite running news, you’re sure to hear plenty about the high-altitude training camps around the world that are frequented by top runners between races.
Places like Flagstaff, Arizona, St. Moritz, Switzerland, and Iten, Kenya all have a few things in common: they’re situated at high altitudes, they have plenty of good roads and trails to run on, and they’re home to a lot of very fast runners.
There’s been a lot of research into the benefits of altitude training in distance runners, but let’s face it—the odds of you finding the time to spend eight weeks living in a cabin in Flagstaff are not good, no matter how much of a benefit altitude might have.
But surprisingly, there are still some useful lessons for the rest of us that can be learned from research into altitude training.
The training camp effect
Early studies into the effects of altitude on the human body’s athletic performance were fairly straightforward: scientists would conduct some initial performance testing on a group of athletes, take them up to high-altitude, train for a few weeks, then return to sea level and carry out the same tests again.
One example is a 1967 study by John Faulkner, Jack Daniels (who would later go on to write the best-selling “Daniels Running Formula”), and Bruno Balke.
Faulkner et al. took five runners and 16 swimmers up to 7,500 feet above sea level for a three week training camp.
Following a return to sea level, all of the athletes had more red blood cells in their blood, and the runners improved their performance on a VO2 max test and in time trials (though interestingly, the swimmers did not).
However, it doesn’t take an exercise physiology PhD to spot a problem with this kind of study: it doesn’t have a control group which does the same training, but not at altitude, as a reference.
As pointed out by Damian Bailey and Bruce Davies in a 1997 review article, only about 30% of the scientific studies on altitude training extant in the literature used a control group.
Only three of the 27 studies which did include a control group found a statistically significant improvement in aerobic fitness when comparing high-altitude training to equivalent sea-level training.
But this doesn’t mean that the runners, swimmers, and cyclists in these studies weren’t improving—they often did get more fit! But whether or not they were at altitude didn’t usually make a difference.
And here’s where things get relevant for sea-level residents like you and me: the most plausible explanation for what causes the improvement in the athletes in these studies isn’t the stimulus of being at altitude, but the vast improvement in training, recovery, and quality of life.
There’s no denying that the “training camp effect”—heading off to a low-stress location, spending more time getting in quality workouts and solid recovery, and training with other athletes with similar goals—can have a profound impact on your fitness, whether that training camp is at 700 or 7,000 feet above sea level.
There’s been a lot more high-quality research into altitude training since Bailey and Davies’ review study, and altitude training, especially “live high, train low” strategies (which involve living at high altitudes, then driving or even taking a plane to sea level to do high-intensity workouts), is a part of the yearly training routine of most professional runners in the United States and Europe.
But it’s still important to remember the training camp effect: even if altitude on its own is beneficial, so too is a training camp!
By contrasting the ideal “training camp” for you with what your typical daily routine consists of, you can figure out what kinds of things are holding you back.
Here are some examples and a few tips
- You probably don’t get enough sleep, you likely could eat a bit better, and you could make more of an effort to get some workouts in with other runners with similar goals. Try to improve just one of these things this week. Short on time, fine-tune your diet. Changing your diet too difficult? Get some extra sleep. Focus on just one thing this week!
- Maybe you can’t block out a month-long sojourn to the mountains, but you can turn a long holiday weekend or a vacation into a mini-training camp. This is especially useful if you have a big training block coming up (as most of you might with upcoming fall marathons).
In the end, it’s about taking this message and acting on it.
De-stress, sleep in, eat better, and get some quality workouts in. Even if you’re not a pro runner, better training coupled with better recovery is sure to lead to improved race performances.
If you’re interested in giving yourself your own training camp effect in preparation for your big fall race, we still have 2 slots open for our 3-day training trip to Zap Fitness Thursday, September 4th through Sunday September 7th.
Here are the details.