How High Altitude Triathlon Training Works

Is high altitude training beneficial for triathletes? Or could it be dangerous?
Is high altitude training beneficial for triathletes? Or could it be dangerous?
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Coaches and elite athletes of all disciplines swear by high altitude training. Cycler and seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong trained at altitude when he was recovering from a collarbone injury in 2009. Swimmer Michael Phelps completed high altitude training camps at the Olympic Training Center at Colorado Springs to prepare for his record-busting performances in the 2008 Olympics.

Proponents of high altitude training (often simply called "altitude training") note that the human body produces more red blood cells at higher altitudes. They believe that the presence of these oxygen-hungry cells boosts athletic performance for a few weeks after an athlete returns to sea level [source: Eyestone]. Because circumstantial accounts of better performance after altitude training exist across many athletic disciplines, altitude training is especially attractive to multisport competitors and triathletes.

Not everyone agrees that altitude training is beneficial, however. Thinner air makes it more difficult to train at altitude. You'll breath faster, and your heart rate will be higher, even though you aren't running, cycling or swimming as fast as you're able to at sea level. Detractors say that training at lower intensity while acclimating to altitude cancels out the benefits of increased red blood cell production. Furthermore, the effects of altitude are unpredictable. While one athlete may feel fine, another will feel sluggish and unable to perform as the body acclimates to the thin air at high altitude.

In this article, we'll talk about the pros and cons of high altitude triathlon training. In the next section, let's explore the benefits.

Benefits of High Altitude Triathlon Training

The theory behind altitude training goes like this:

  1. Air is thinner at higher altitudes.
  2. In order to cope with less oxygen available in thin air, the body produces more hemoglobin (the oxygen-carrying components of red blood cells).
  3. Having more hemoglobin/red blood cells results in improved performance at sea level.

While the first point is a widely-known fact, and the second point has been scientifically proven (see sidebar), the third point remains controversial. There's currently no definitive proof that altitude training improves performance. However, because they've witnessed great performances by athletes who've trained at altitude, many coaches and athletes believe altitude training is effective. When athletes are looking for something -- anything -- that might give them a competitive edge, even unproven strategies might be worth exploring.

There are a number of different approaches to training at altitude, including "Live High/Train High," "Live Low/Train High" and "Live High/Train Low." Probably the most popular approach is the "Live High/Train Low" (LHTL) strategy. Studies show that to receive the full benefit of this approach, athletes need to remain in a high altitude environment for about 12 hours per day for at least three to four weeks [Source: Wehrlin]. To achieve this, an athlete may, for instance, live on top of a mountain and travel to the valley below to train.

Marathoner Ed Eyestone suggests that the "sweet spot" for altitude training is between 7,000 and 8,000 feet (2,133 and 2,438 meters), and many coaches believe that altitude training is most effective at the peak of training, near the date of competition.

Purported benefits of high altitude training include:

  • increased lung capacity
  • increased lactic acid threshold
  • increased hemoglobin mass and red cell volume
  • muscles more efficient at extracting oxygen from the blood

Though studies are underway, not all of these benefits have been proven scientifically. Still, many athletes and coaches have a "It can't hurt" attitude toward altitude training. Before beginning any kind of new training regimen, however, athletes should educate themselves about the risks, as well as the possible benefits. When it comes to altitude training, some benefits, such as increased hemoglobin and red blood cells, may actually pose problems for some athletes. We look at the dangers of high altitude triathlon training in the next section.

Dangers of High Altitude Triathlon Training

As experienced mountaineers can attest, altitude is no joke. If you increase altitude too quickly, you'll find yourself with a monstrous headache at best -- at worst, you'll experience acute altitude sickness, which can lead to potentially lethal conditions such as pulmonary or cerebral edema.

At sea level, the weight of the atmosphere above compresses the air around us. As we travel upward, air pressure lessens. Technically, there's the same amount of oxygen in mountain air as in sea level air; however, the lighter pressure at altitude means that oxygen molecules are further apart [source: Baillie]. Because the air at altitude is thinner, we have to work harder to extract the same amount of oxygen.

It's tricky to predict how an athlete's body will respond to altitude. Faster breathing and a higher heart rate are natural responses to acclimatization; however, if an athlete is breathless even at rest, he or she may be in danger of developing more serious altitude-related conditions, such as:

  • Sluggish blood flow. One of the most desirable benefits of altitude training, an increase in red blood cell production, can actually make blood thicker and stickier. The heart sometimes has trouble pumping the blood effectively, which reduces oxygen flow and negates the benefit of altitude training [source: Simpson].
  • Headache. In a mild case of altitude sickness, headache can be relieved with aspirin. If aspirin has no effect, you may be developing altitude sickness.
  • Cheyne-Stokes respirations. Shallow breathing followed by not breathing and waking with a feeling of suffocation while sleeping at high altitude.
  • Moderate to severe altitude sickness. Symptoms include headache, vomiting, dizziness, sleepiness, coughing and loss of balance.
  • High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE). Swelling of brain tissue from fluid leakage
  • High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE). Fluid buildup in the lungs

[source: Curtis]

In addition to these serious dangers, other potentially undesirable problems can occur when training at high altitude. These include weight loss and the inability to train at sea-level intensities.

The most serious dangers of altitude training generally occur at higher altitudes (above 8,000 feet, or 2,428 meters.) We'll talk about how to train safely at altitude and explore ways to simulate altitude training at sea level in the next section.

High Altitude Triathlon Training Workouts

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.

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Sources:

  • Baillie, Kenneth. "Living In Thin Air." Altitude.org. June 2007. (Sept. 17, 2010)http://www.altitude.org/why_less_oxygen.php
  • Baker, A. and Hopkins W.G. "High Altitude Training for Sea Level Competition." Internet Society for Sports Science. 1998. (Sept. 16, 2010)http://www.sportsci.org/traintech/altitude/wgh.html
  • Carmichael, Chris. "Lance's High Altitude Healing." Bicyling.com. (Sept. 16, 2010)http://www.tourdefranceinformation.com/tourdefrance/article/0,6802,s1-3-9-19002-2,00.html
  • Curtis, Rick. "Outdoor Action Guide to High Altitude: Acclimatization and Illness." Outdoor Action Program, Princeton University. July 7, 1999. (Sept. 17, 2010)http://www.princeton.edu/~oa/safety/altitude.html
  • Eyestone, Ed. "Take the High Road." Runnersworld.com. August 2004. (Sept. 16, 2010)http://www.runnersworld.com/article/1,7124,s6-238-267--7912-0,00.html
  • Simpson, Alistair. "Altitude Training." Altitude.org. June 2007. (Sept. 16, 2010)http://www.altitude.org/altitude_training.php
  • Stray-Gunderson, James and others. "Living high training low altitude training improves performance in male and female elite runners." Journal of Applied Physiology. May 17, 2001. (Sept. 17, 2010)http://jap.physiology.org/cgi/content/abstract/91/3/1113
  • Wehrlin, Jon Peter and others. "Live high-train low for 24 days increases hemoglobin mass and red cell volume in elite endurance athletes." Journal of Applied Physiology. Feb. 21, 2006. (Sept. 17, 2010)http://jap.physiology.org/cgi/content/abstract/100/6/1938