There is a growing trend amongst amateur cyclists to take their training to a higher level. Where power meters used to be exclusive for professional cyclists, it is now becoming a standard equipment for amateurs. It all started with the heart rate monitors and train in certain fitness zones, but now the most asked question is how many watts you can push for 5 minutes.
Another trend we’ve seen is altitude training camps, which can be useful to prepare for a special event or Gran Fondo with lots of vertical climbing. Living and training for a couple of weeks on high altitude has been the key preparation for any Grand Tour winner of the last decades. And we’ve all read the stories about young Nairo Quintana living above 3,200 meters and take his bike to school every day made him the best climber in the world. Since this is a very relevant subject for Colombia, with the Andes crossing the complete country, we thought it would be nice to take a closer look at the effects of high altitude training.
How does it work?
Altitude training works because of the difference in atmospheric pressure between sea level and high altitude. At sea level, air is denser and there are more molecules of gas per litre of air. Regardless of altitude, air is composed of 21% oxygen and 78% nitrogen. As the altitude increases, the pressure exerted by these gases decreases. Therefore, there are fewer molecules per unit volume: this causes a decrease in partial pressures of gases in the body, which elicits a variety of physiological changes in the body that occur at high altitude. The body may acclimate to the relative lack of oxygen in one or more ways such as increasing the mass of red blood cells and hemoglobin, or altering muscle metabolism. Proponents claim that when such athletes travel to competitions at lower altitudes they will still have a higher concentration of red blood cells for 10–14 days, and this gives them a competitive advantage.
Other mechanisms have been proposed to explain the utility of altitude training. Not all studies show a statistically significant increase in red blood cells from altitude training. One study explained the success by increasing the intensity of the training (due to increased heart and respiration rate). This improved training resulted in effects that lasted more than 15 days after return to sea level.
Another set of researchers claim that altitude training stimulates a more efficient use of oxygen by the muscles. This efficiency can arise from numerous other responses to altitude training, including angiogenesis, glucose transport, glycolysis, and pH regulation, each of which may partially explain improved endurance performance independent of a greater number of red blood cells. Furthermore, exercising at high altitude has been shown to cause muscular adjustments of selected gene transcripts, and improvement of mitochondrial properties in skeletal muscle
So now that we know what happens to the body at high altitude training, we can focus on the different types of training. In short, there are two well-known principles: Live High Train High (LHTH) and Live High Train Low (LHTL).
Live high, train high
Live high, train high is the traditional altitude training technique where athletes relocate to a high altitude camps or areas to both live and train. Decades of clinical data on LHTH demonstrate that it improves performance at high altitude, but should be within the following limits:
Live and train within the optimum altitude window of 2,100-2500 m (6,890-8,200 ft).
This altitude range is a balance between maintaining high enough elevation to induce red blood cell generation and low enough altitude to not significantly reduce training performance and recovery
Do not attempt your sea-Level training regimen in high altitude
High altitude places limitations on your body that simply prevent you from reaching your sea-level training regiment, as measured by a combination of training intensity and volume. Training in high altitude also produces more lactic acid, which will reduce EPO in your blood and potentially stunt your ability to acclimatize.
Live and train at high altitude for a minimum of 28 Days.
This is the minimum amount of time required for red blood cell concentrations to significantly increase and for other biological benefits to be acquired.
it is unclear whether or not LHTH is beneficial to athletes competing at sea level. Scientists cite detraining effects, humidity de-adaptation, and effects on cardiac output as factors that may offset its sea-level performance benefits. As scientists have discovered that these performance-decreasing factors are specific to LHTH, the athletic trend is shifting towards its new and improved version live high, train low (LHTL).
Live high, train low
The theory behind this regime is that the body will acclimatize to altitude by living high, whilst training intensity can be maintained by training low. Hence, the beneficial effects of altitude exposure are harnessed whilst some of the negative ones are avoided. However, residence at altitude must be for more than 12 hours per day. A non-training elevation of 2,100–2,500 meters (6,900–8,200 ft) and training at 1,250 meters (4,100 ft) or less has shown to be the optimal approach for altitude training. This makes Colombia with cities like Bogotá and Manizales a perfect location for altitude training camps.
With this technique, improvements in sea-level performance have been shown in events lasting between 8 and 20 minutes. And interestingly, athletes of all abilities are thought to benefit.
So, if you are looking to improve your performance on high altitude challenges, the Live-high, train-high principle seems to be the best preparation. While if you’re looking for a performance improvement on a sea-level event, the Live-high, train-low principle would work out best for you.