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The Powers of Altitude Training

Very popular with high-level athletes, altitude training is becoming more and more popular . An interest that was born in 1968, during the Olympic Games in Mexico. This competition perched at 2,250 meters was notably marked by poor performances during the endurance events while at the same time we witnessed world records in the sprint and long jump. Since then, the impact of altitude on sports performance has been widely discussed among scientists. To date, neither the existing literature nor the various scientific experiments carried out make it possible to decide.

Despite everything, certain effects on the body are undeniable. The higher you go, the more oxygen becomes scarce, resulting in a drop in the oxygenation of the lungs and then the blood. And to compensate for this hypoxia, the body develops several processes in order to adapt to the new conditions it must endure. 1 

An increase in red blood cell count

The reduction in oxygen levels will lead to the secretion of a hormone well known in the sporting world: erythropoietin or EPO. EPO will stimulate the production by the bone marrow of a greater quantity of red blood cells, in order to compensate for the lack of O2 supplied to the tissues . And it is precisely this effect that is sought by athletes, in order to be able to provide more oxygen to the muscles when the body descends to the usual altitude. 2 In addition, although the EPO hormone is present in the body, the proportions are well below those of doped runners.

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At altitude, biological adaptation does not necessarily occur immediately 2 . You would have to wait at least a week to see an effective increase in the number of red blood cells in the blood. But the process begins instantly in other forms. HAS a certain height, you naturally breathe faster and your heart rate increases. Hyperventilation which increases oxygen intake. The respiratory muscles are then more efficient. 2 It is for endurance sports that work at altitude is particularly attractive, even if several studies also demonstrate the benefits of hypoxia for gaining muscle mass or improving performance in disciplines that rely on speed 2 .

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Training at altitude: a practice to moderate

Specialists agree that spending at least two weeks at altitude would be sufficient to observe significant results. Beyond this duration, only high-level athletes and/or regulars will benefit from it. The recommended time at altitude depends not only on the level but also on the physical properties of each person. Some people resist the effects of altitude more or less well and not everyone acclimatizes in the same way. Still others may be more enduring. Generally, a short week's acclimatization at altitude is recommended. Obviously, the more the athlete is accustomed to altitude, the more this phase will be reduced but never eliminated.

On site, the lack of oxygen makes the session more difficult. You will therefore have to invest even more than usual in order to carry out the exercise correctly. And if the effort required is greater, there is no need to increase the intensity or the mileage. A good compromise for taking care of your joints! So you can't train at altitude like you do on the plains . Climatic conditions are also elements to take into account. So don't hesitate to modify your session if rain or wind is forecast.

Trying at all costs to train on the highest peak is also a mistake. From a certain altitude, it is no longer possible to follow a preparation. If, below 1000m, the effects of altitude are negligible, too high altitude can cause rather detrimental side effects 3 .

And although it has proven itself for certain athletes, altitude training is not the miracle method for becoming efficient every time. It is important to monitor your iron levels – people suffering from iron deficiency do not benefit from training at altitude – and to always rely on the advice of your doctor.

1 -physiological-adaptations-to-hypoxia / (Sports Medicine File, 11/25/2013)
2 (Publication by Professor Charles-Yannick GUEZENNEC, 14th National Conference on the Fight and Prevention of Doping, 14-15/03/ 2014)
3 (Intermittent Hypoxic Training: Fact and Fancy – Publication by Benjamin D. Levine, 02/11/2002)