Athletes often use extreme training methods to gain any edge they can over their competitors. Altitude training is a popular method athletes utilize, especially endurance athletes such as runners. Altitude training consists of training several weeks at a high altitude, preferably over 8,000 feet above sea level. However, due to the scarcity of altitude locations at that height, intermediate altitudes are more commonly used. The air still contains approximately 20.9% oxygen at intermediate altitudes, but both the barometric pressure and partial pressure of oxygen is reduced. This type of training forces the body to adapt to the lack of oxygen by increasing the mass of red blood cells and hemoglobin or changing muscle metabolism.
It is hypothesized that when the athlete travels to a lower altitude, he or she will still have a higher concentration of red blood cells for 10-14 days, thus creating a competitive advantage.1 Some proponents, however, believe an athlete should compete within 48 hours of coming back from high altitude. Robert Chapman, exercise physiologist in the School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation (HPER) at Indiana University Bloomington conducted a study which suggests both beliefs may be right.2
The study lasted for 28 days and consisted of six elite distance runners and was performed in Flagstaff, Arizona, which has an elevation of about 7,000 feet above sea level. These runners followed a training program known as “live high, train low,” which meant that although they lived at a higher altitude, they trained at 3,300 feet to do more intense workouts a few times each week. Upon completion of the training program, the runners had tests performed on them that focused on heart rate, running economy, and mechanics. These tests lasted for 26 days.3
The results of the physiological data implied that 48 hours is a good time to compete based on the breathing results. Days 7 and 13 showed more difficulty in breathing. The study suggests an athlete may perform best at 18 to 22 days after high altitude training because the extra breathing ceases and the body gets re-familiarized to a lower altitude.4
Lead author of the study, Abby Laymon, graduate student in the School of HPER’s Department of Kinesiology said about the results of the study, “This research will help athletes plan for major competitions. For example, if an athlete is training for the Olympic trials, they can count backwards and plan their workout accordingly to perform their best after altitude training.”5
With the 2012 Summer Olympics in London drawing closer, athletes are preparing for trials, and/or wrapping up their training programs. It’s safe to say that many of those Olympians are training at high altitudes, and have their days calculated precisely so that they will perform at an optimal level.