Natural altitude training can improve performance even when competing at low altitudes.
Why should we perform altitude training?
Altitude training is a strategy that skiers can include in their yearly training schedule to improve their performance, even when competing at low altitudes. Prolonged natural altitude training (> 2 weeks) at 2000-3000 m increases the oxygen carrying capacity of the blood. Further adaptations include increased aerobic and anaerobic enzymes in the skeletal muscle. Overall, these responses mean improvements in oxygen extraction and muscle buffering capacity, which can contribute to improved performance.
Types of altitude training and recent research
There are three main types of altitude training: live high-train high, live high-train low, and live low-train high. The benefits of altitude exposure depend on the hypoxic dose (duration [in hours] multiplied by elevation [in metres]) and the athlete's pre-exposure training status. Research indicates that athletes should undertake 3-4 weeks of moderate altitude exposure (2000-3000 m) for 10-14 h per day. However, similar benefits may be achieved with a longer period of exposure at lower altitudes (e.g. 1800 m).
Recommendations for implementing altitude training
For the first week of altitude exposure, training intensity and volume should be reduced and recovery duration within interval sessions should be increased (by 2-3 times), in order to allow athletes sufficient time to adapt to a low-oxygen environment. Individual athletes will respond differently to altitude training, therefore it is important to monitor individual training loads at altitude so that responses may be optimised. Some athletes may experience performance benefits for up to six weeks after altitude training.
Important considerations prior to altitude training
There are some important medical and nutritional considerations to be aware of before starting altitude training. Firstly, you should consult with your doctor to check your iron status three weeks before altitude exposure. If you have low iron stores you will need to take iron supplements before and during altitude training. Altitude exposure also increases the use of blood glucose and stored glycogen as a fuel source, as well as increases fluid losses due to increased urine production and higher breathing rates. During periods of altitude training you will therefore need to increase your overall energy consumption, eat more carbohydrate and drink more fluids than you typically would at sea level.
On the horizon
Recent research suggests that combining heat training with altitude exposure can increase blood plasma volume, therefore improving performance by offsetting the reduced plasma volume that occurs with altitude training. However, this new training method places athletes under considerable stress and further research is necessary to optimise this protocol before it is recommended.
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