-Sharone Aharon

Altitude training caught my attention around 2006 when I was working with USA Triathlon Team at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. Eight months ago, I decided to revisit the concept of this form of training and how it could benefit athletes. I had two questions that I needed to answer:

  • How can we here in Chicago, efficiently train at altitude?
  • Does this method of training increase your fitness and overall performance?

My initial search for altitude training landed me in Australia which has an overall population of 25 million. Throughout the country, there are 16 altitude training centers divided somewhat equally around the big cities. The UK has six, and there are also facilities in France, Belgium and The Netherlands. Knowing the endurance power these countries have, I knew I was on the right track.

Next, I began  looking into research. In 2006 a group of scientists had breakthrough research, using a high-intensity training protocol at an altitude room, showing significant improvement (37%) in aerobic capacity in only six weeks! This increase in aerobic capacity and performance did not occur in the control group who trained at sea level.

This research was monumental in the shift of understanding simulated altitude training. It started a wave of research articles supporting the fact that Intermittent Altitude Training (IHT), at threshold or above intensity, is a valid and beneficial modality to improve endurance, speed, strength and overall performance.

Adding altitude training to your routine compounds the benefits of every high intensity session due to the lowered oxygen saturation in your blood; a training simulation that cannot occur at sea level oxygen conditions. Therefore, the significant training benefits can only come as a response to training in simulated altitude conditions.

To clear the confusion about the differences between real altitude and simulated altitude here is a short explanation:

  • Real altitude – maximum exposure time at high altitude (low oxygen conditions) will increase the number of red blood cells and therefore the amount of oxygen delivery to the working muscles. However, this method has a somewhat limited performance at sea level races, mostly due to inability to train at high intensity.
  • Simulated altitude – using high-intensity intervals in simulated altitude higher than 8,000ft will maximize oxygen absorption and processing in the working cells. These types of protocols show dramatic improvement in endurance, sprint ability and strength.

Both methods improve performance, however, the mechanism that led to the improvement was different.

Although the benefits of training at altitude are incredibly significant compared with sea level training, it is essential to understand that altitude training is only one piece of your overall training plan. Altitude training phases should be integrated into your training plan at certain parts throughout the year while you continue to do your regular training sessions.

Now that we know that IHT increases performance, the next question is how to apply altitude training to your current training plan. Research shows that 2 to 3 sessions per week for at least four weeks at threshold or higher intensity can significantly increase your endurance, speed and strength (depending on your training protocol). The benefits of such routine will last for 3 to 4 weeks and can be extended with a maintenance plan.

You can add altitude training to your regimen at any time during the season but here are some guidelines to help you fit it in:

  • Commit at least 4 to 8 weeks to your altitude training build phase
  • 2 to 3 sessions per week
  • Training intensity should be at threshold or above
  • Maintain your long and endurance workouts outside of the altitude room
  • Your high-intensity workouts will be replaced by the altitude room sessions during that phase
  • The latest to start an altitude training phase would be 4 weeks out of your race, preferably 5
  • If your A race is later in the season, try this schedule:
    • Start with 4 weeks altitude focus (2 to 3 altitude sessions/week)
    • Follow up with 6-8 weeks maintenance (1 altitude session/week)
    • Repeat if you have more time
  • As you get closer to your race, altitude sessions should focus on the specific needs of your race but still maintaining threshold or above intensity.
  • Mountaineers should focus on both long walks with packs and high intensity workouts at 10,000ft or above (2-3x per week), with a minimum program length of 4 weeks and up to 16.

Training protocols can range from 6 second sprints to a single 40 minute threshold set. It all depends on what are you trying to improve. Here are some examples:

  • Improving sprints
    3x (5 x 10 sec all out sprint with 20 sec rest)
    8 sprint sessions in simulated altitude over four weeks, cyclists improved their sprinting ability by 25% compared with cyclists that trained the same program at sea level oxygen conditions. In other words, YOU WILL HAVE MORE MATCHES TO BURN THAN THE GUY NEXT TO YOU! IN ONLY 4 WEEKS!
  • Improving aerobic capacity
    9 threshold intensity sessions in 3 weeks. Training at 95% of threshold and medium duration (30-40min) is an effective training means for improving aerobic capacity and endurance, for cyclists’ performance at sea level. In other words, YOU WILL GAIN SIGNIFICANTLY MORE FITNESS USING SIMULATED ALTITUDE THAN DOING THE SAME THING AT SEA LEVEL CONDITIONS. IN ONLY 3 WEEKS!
  • Improving running at threshold pace
    6 weeks, 2 run sessions each week at tempo to threshold pace as:
    Week 1 and 4 – 2 x 12 min
    Week 2 and 5 – 2 x 16 min
    Week 3 and 6 – 2 x 20 min
    Increase your aerobic power by up to 35%. In other words, RUN 13K WITH WHAT USED TO BE YOUR 10K PACE in only 6 weeks.

As you can see, altitude training can give you a vast improvement in a short time, and a significant edge in competitions that otherwise you will not be able to gain. Just like with regular training at sea level condition, adaptation to altitude training can vary from one athlete to another. The overall conclusion is that incorporating altitude training in normal atmospheric pressure can significantly improve your performance compared with doing the same training at sea level oxygen conditions.

Contact us to set up a consultation or a free week at Well-Fit or to further inquire about altitude training and take your training to NEW HEIGHTS!