Altitude Training for Athletes: How Is It Done?

Altitude training can be very beneficial for sports performance, but anyone considering this should first investigate it thoroughly. Here, we'll give you a basic guide.
Altitude Training for Athletes: How Is It Done?

Last update: 18 August, 2020

The combination of training and altitude has been used for decades, especially for elite athletes. However, these days it’s possible for almost any athlete to gain the benefits of this type of training. Let’s see how to use this training method and its benefits. You’ll also learn about some of the risks that you should be aware of.

The concept of altitude training has to do with limiting the air you breathe to make the body work more efficiently. That’s to say, your body will become accustomed to training in more difficult circumstances. Then, it will be able to make better use of oxygen in normal conditions, improving your performance.

Benefits of altitude training for athletes

The process we described above is what happens to the body at high altitudes. In sports, high altitude conditions are imitated during training to make the body stronger. Here are some of the benefits that are associated with this training technique.

Increased energy output

The body will be capable of utilizing oxygen better and producing more energy. This translates to greater endurance, which means you’ll be able to train or exercise for more time before you notice tiredness or fatigue.

Along the same lines, the mitochondria in your body will also increase their function. These are a small part of each cell that helps to produce your body’s energy.

Increased ability to eliminate lactate

Lactate is a waste product created naturally by the body and is best eliminated as soon as possible. Altitude training increases the body’s capacity to eliminate it, apart from upping the number of cells dedicated to this job.

A man running in a mountain range

Better use of fats

The body will make more energy from the fats accumulated in the body. Apart from being a good way to lose weight, it’s also a more natural source of energy.

Forces the cardiovascular system to adapt

This adaption takes place with two processes. One is vasodilation (widening of blood vessels). The other is capillarization (an increase in the capillaries that surround a muscle, resulting in an increase in blood flow to the muscles). An increase in red blood cells (that carry oxygen around the body) is also a likely result.

Becoming accustomed to high altitude conditions

This is usually the main reason why athletes utilize altitude training. The idea is to recreate the conditions that the athlete will be competing in, to get used to them. This way they can have better performance levels at altitude than if they just trained under normal conditions.

Altitude training for athletes: some precautions

The combination of altitude and training also has risks. For that reason, it’s a training method that you should only embark on under professional supervision.

The athlete should have their objectives clearly in mind and commence training progressively to meet these objectives. As with many other training methods, looking for instant results can bring more harm than good for the athlete.

Here’s one thing to be aware of. You’ll need to know exactly how much oxygen you’re limiting in your air supply. If you overdo it, you could start to suffer from hypoxia, a serious lack of oxygen, that can result in fainting. It’s also good to have a suitable diet for this training technique since you’ll need to take in a higher amount of calories than normal.

This type of training is also not appropriate for people who suffer from conditions such as hypertension or hyperthyroidism. The same applies to people who have had organ transplants, pregnant women, or older people.

How is it done?

The most common variation of this type of training is intermittent altitude simulation. The athlete uses an oxygen mask that limits the oxygen intake, during training sessions of 60-90 minutes, several times a week.

In these sessions, periods with the mask on are alternated with periods without the mask. In this way, the athlete’s body can progressively adjust to the conditions. Athletes should monitor their condition at all times during these sessions.

A girl running on a treadmill with an oxygen mask

For those who have the possibility to do so, there’s also the option of training in a high-performance altitude training center. The centers are literally located at high altitudes. This means your body can get used to using less oxygen more naturally. It’s best if you don’t just train at altitude, but also live at altitude.

Another option is to purchase a camping tent to be able to sleep at high altitudes while living your normal life during the day. In this way, your training will be normal, but your body will still start to acclimatize to the altitude at night.

However, there are studies that show that this technique may not be as effective. See for instance the one published by the European Journal of Applied Physiology.

There are also more recent studies that establish the exact altitude ranges that this training is effective. Such is the case in an investigation from 2014 published by the Journal of Applied Physiology.

Altitude training in sports

Before starting this type of training, you should have your goals clearly in mind. You’re an athlete and you want to get better, but… what to what lengths will you go? Depending on your answer, investing in altitude training may be worth it, or it may not. It’ll certainly mean a considerable investment of time and money.

This method can also be useful if you want to do rock climbing or mountaineering, to be able to cope with the higher levels. In any case, you should only embark on a training program when you have the help of an expert. They can measure your progress and will make sure it’s a safe and positive experience.

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All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • C. Gough, P. Saunders, J. Fowlie et al. Influence of altitude training modality on performance and total haemoglobin mass in elite swimmers. European Journal of Applied Physiology volume 112, pages3275–3285 (2012)
  • R. Chapman, T. Karlsen, G. Resaland et al. Defining the “dose” of altitude training: how high to live for optimal sea level performance enhancement. Volume 116, Issue 6, Pages 595-603 (2014)
  • C. Lundby, P. Robach. Does ‘altitude training’ increase exercise performance in elite athletes? Experimental Physiology, 101(7):783-788 (2016)

The contents of this publication are written for informational purposes. At no time do they facilitate or replace the diagnoses, treatments, or recommendations of a professional. Consult your trusted specialist if you have any doubts and seek their approval before beginning any procedure.