High Performance with Altitude

" This essentially makes you able to run faster or hold a steady pace for a longer period of time.”  - Robert Chapman, Ph.D.,  Associate Director of Sport Science and Medicine for USA Track & Field

Park City “Sweet Spot”

Park City’s elevation of 7,000 ft is just what the Doctor ordered according to recent studies. Training at elevation at the 7,000 to 8,000 ft elevation level was found to be the “sweet spot” in a recent study by elite athlete endurance performance researcher, Robert Chapman. Along with his team of researchers they focused on a group of athletes training at the same altitude for 28 days following the same workouts. A quarter of the athletes lived at 6,000, a quarter at 7,000, the same at 8,000 and 9,000 ft. According to his results those living in the 7,000 to 8,000 ft elevations performed the best.

Jupiter Peak Steeplechase 2012

An Oxygen “Retrofit”

With less oxygen at high altitude, breathing is more difficult, at any pace, than at sea level. It also affects the volume of blood the heart can pump. As a result, the body adapts to the lower oxygen content in the air by creating more red blood cells. The elevated level of red blood cells then allows your body to get more oxygen to the muscles. However it takes between 21 and 28 days for the red blood cells to double. According to Chapman’s study, training somewhere in this range produced the optimum results. However, Chapman also acknowledges the benefits of a shorter training period at altitude. These include working out in a group, training in a great location and getting out of what can be a stressful day-to-day routine.

Timing it Right

Another factor in high altitude training considered by Chapman’s research is the time frame within which an athlete should compete after returning from training.  Coaches generally recommend competing within 48 hours of returning or in the 18 to 22 day range. According to leading research both of these might be correct. A study of 6 elite athletes following a “live high train low” program, tested the athletes for heart rate, mechanics and economy. Of particular interest were the results of breathing tests that suggested the 48 hour period was ideal for competing. Days 7 and 13 were the most challenging and by days 18 to 22 extra breathing caused by altitude stops. Extra breathing requires more energy and muscles as well as additional work to regulate the flow of blood, which is why athletes also performed better once it had ceased. In another study focused on Kenyan runners training at altitude, it was found that by day 28 the red blood cell count had returned to normal. Normally, a red blood cell lives 180 days, however, as soon as a person return to sea level, the body quickly begins to kills off the immature red blood cells.

Other Impacts of Going High

Given the important effect of altitude on breathing, traveling to altitude can have serious implications for a person suffering from lung disease. According to the Institute for Altitude Medicine at Telluride, a person with asthma can benefit from reduced levels of pollution, and the presence of fewer dust mites which are a common allergen yet don’t live at high altitude. Individuals with chronic lung disease and difficulty transporting oxygen from the lungs to the bloodstream were found to do worse at high altitude. For anyone with a chronic lung disease visiting high altitude, they simply recommend using oxygen. Children and youth with cystic fibrosis (CF) often do poorly at altitude, however the institute references a report of a young adult with mild CF who hiked to over 16,500 feet without incident. For visiting moderate altitude doctors may recommend using extra oxygen in combination with other aggressive CF medications. Lower oxygen at high altitude can also cause other problems. For instance carbon monoxide poisoning is much worse. Caused by lack of adequate ventilation in cabins, cooking in closed tents and improperly ventilated snow shelters, carbon monoxide binds to the molecule that carries oxygen in red blood cells and will not allow the release of oxygen to body tissues.

New Twist for the Future

For elite endurance athletes new research by Dr. Chapman indicates there may be limitations to high altitude training for some individuals. According to his research, 50% of the elite endurance athletes demonstrated a phenomenon called Exercise Induced Hypoxemia, meaning there is insufficient oxygenation of the blood. For these athletes, even training at a moderate altitude of 3,000 ft, was found to cause a significant decline in performance. Those who responded best to high altitude training were able to train at the fastest speeds and produced higher levels of EPO, a hormone that controls red blood cell production. These athletes exhibited greater red blood cell production and peak oxygen intake improvement. Chapman suggests that these results may eventually lead to a pre-screening procedure to determine who would benefit most from training at high altitude.