The theory behind altitude training goes like this:
- Air is thinner at higher altitudes.
- In order to cope with less oxygen available in thin air, the body produces more hemoglobin (the oxygen-carrying components of red blood cells).
- 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.