Alp study asks if al­ti­tude can boost ath­letic per­for­mance


Re­searchers have taken to the peaks of France’s Mont Blanc this sum­mer to see whether the body’s pro­duc­tion of red blood cells at high al­ti­tudes has sim­i­lar ef­fects in ath­letes to dop­ing agents like EPO.

In a month- long experiment end­ing in mid-Au­gust, a group of 11 Nor­we­gian down­hill skiers aged 18 to 25 are spend­ing most of their days at the Plan de l’Aigu­ille refuge near Cha­monix, al­ti­tude 2,200 me­ters.

Af­ter a daily morn­ing com­mute by ca­ble car down into the val­ley, the ath­letes un­dergo an in­ten­sive train­ing regime al­ter­nat­ing in­line skat­ing, run­ning, weight train­ing, cy­cling and swimming.

In the af­ter­noon they re­turn to the refuge and spend the rest of the day and night at an al­ti­tude where oxy­gen lev­els are 20 per­cent lower than at sea level.

“My pulse is much higher, and I can feel my short­ness of breath,” said Eirik Soe­men, 18, a par­tic­i­pant in the experiment.

Once the month of train­ing is over, Eirik, Tonje, Ola and their co­horts will re­turn to Lille­ham­mer, where they’ll un­dergo a bat­tery of tests mea­sur­ing their ath­letic per­for­mances, the vol­ume of red cells in their blood, max­i­mal oxy­gen in­take and other cri­te­ria.

The ob­jec­tive is to ver­ify whether “en­durance per­for­mance is in­creased” af­ter liv­ing at high al­ti­tudes while train­ing at lower lev­els, says Paul Robach, a pro­fes­sor and re­searcher at that Na­tional School of Skiing and Moun­taineer­ing in Cha­monix.

“There’s less oxy­gen at higher al­ti­tudes (so) the body re­acts by cre­at­ing more red cells. And in sport, the more red cells there are, the bet­ter it is — marathons are run faster, en­durance is im­proved.”

‘Maxed out’ Ath­letes

In­ter­est in the im­pact of al­ti­tude on per­for­mance arose dur­ing the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, which is 2,250 me­ters above sea level. Since then, the ef­fect of al­ti­tude in sports has been “a hotly de­bated topic, re­ly­ing on some some­what un­fo­cused literature and stud­ies that haven’t al­ways been tightly con­trolled,” Robach said.

One study con­ducted in 1997 by pro­fes­sor Ben­jamin Levine of the Univer­sity of Texas South­west­ern in Dal­las, showed im­proved per­for­mance of ath­letes who lived at higher al­ti­tudes while train­ing closer to sea level.

“But the data isn’t al­ways as ‘clean’ as we might hope for in this kind of study, which is why we want to repli­cate it,” said Carsten Lundby, a Univer­sity of Zurich pro­fes­sor who is par­tic­i­pat­ing in the Cha­monix experiment.

To safe­guard the sci­en­tific va­lid­ity of the re­sults, a con­trol group of nine ath­letes re­sid­ing only in the lower val­ley is un­der­go­ing the same train­ing regime as those re­turn­ing to the Plan de l’Aigu­ille refuge ev­ery af­ter­noon.

It re­mains to be seen whether the two group’s per­for­mances will dif­fer sig­nif­i­cantly from one another at the end of the month of train­ing.

That ques­tion is one of ut­most im­por­tance, be­cause “train­ing at high al­ti­tude is an al­ter­na­tive to dop­ing, (and) is there­fore of great in­ter­est to ath­letes,” says Robach.

A pre­vi­ous study us­ing hy­poxic (low oxy­gen) cham­bers car­ried out by the Na­tional Cen­tre of Down­hill Skiing near the Swiss bor­der did not pro­duce sig­nif­i­cant per­for­mance ef­fects on par­tic­i­pat­ing cy­clists.

One ex­pla­na­tion ad­vanced for that is that elite ath­letes “are maxed out in all ways. They’ve trained ev­ery day for many years, and al­ready have an enor­mous vol­ume of red cells,” of­fers Robach.

But with new mea­sure­ment in­stru­ments, “we can de­tect a change of even one per­cent in the quan­tity of red cells,” notes Lundby, who nev­er­the­less warns against ex­pect­ing any­thing rev­o­lu­tion­ary from their test­ing.

“I would be very sur­prised if we find an im­por­tant in­flu­ence” of higher al­ti­tude on the Nor­we­gian skiers liv­ing at the refuge, Lundby says. “But we’ll see.”

The re­search team in Cha­monix hopes to be able to present its re­sults dur­ing the first half of 2016.

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