Though the title of this article is "How High Altitude Triathlon Training Works," the safest and most effective altitude training actually occurs at the lower end of high altitudes. Marathoner Ed Eyestone recounts seeing a tourist pass out seconds after stepping off a bus at the top of a 12,000-foot peak. "It was then I decided training at 12,000 feet was perhaps a little too high," said Eyestone.
The risks of altitude-related illness increase in proportion to elevation. Meanwhile, the benefits of altitude training, such as increased red blood cell production and improved performance, have been documented at the lower end of high altitude (around 8,000 feet, or 2,438 meters) [source: Wehrlin]. In fact, the Olympic training center at Colorado Springs, where athletes like Michael Phelps train at altitude, sits only a little over 6,000 feet (1,839 meters) above sea level.
When planning your high altitude triathlon training, consider the following:
- If possible, drive to a moderate altitude and walk up to high altitude (10,000 feet, or 3,048 meters).
- If you have to fly or drive directly to a high altitude destination, don't exert yourself for the first 24 hours.
- Above 10,000 feet (3,048 meters), only increase your elevation by 1,000 (305 meters) per day. If possible, return to a lower elevation to sleep.
- Begin your workouts slowly, and pay careful attention to your breathing and heart rate. It's easy to push yourself too hard and pass out.
Of course, not all athletes have the luxury of taking several weeks off to train at high altitude. For those of you stuck at sea level, here are some alternatives:
- Hypoxic swim workouts. Force yourself to take fewer breaths while swimming. These workouts can be dangerous and should only be undertaken with a partner or lifeguard who can intervene if you push yourself too hard and black out.
- Hypobaric training facilities. Check with your local Sports medical centers to see if there are options in your area for stationary biking or running on a treadmill while wearing a mask that delivers low-oxygen air.
- Hypoxic training tent. Many athletes turn to a company called HypoxiCo for hypoxic sleeping tents and other gear designed to simulate high altitude conditions.
High altitude training is not something that should be taken lightly. Performance improvements from altitude training have been documented at less than 2 percent, and LHTL training has not been definitively proven to result in improvements. However, for highly competitive triathletes looking for new ways to improve performance, high altitude training may be worth exploring.