Cyclist gets the lowdown on high training from Professor Louis Passfield of the University of Kent
Cyclist: How does altitude affect the body?
Professor Louis Passfield: Oxygen delivery in the body is compromised, so all aspects of performance that rely on oxygen tend to be compromised too. Training hard, racing and recovery are all affected. However, the body adapts to altitude over a period of time. You can’t train as hard but some of the adaptations that altitude triggers can be beneficial. You want your altitude training to emphasise the positive adaptations and minimise the negative consequences of not being able to train as effectively.
Cyc: How high do we need to go? LP: Generally above 2,000m. Some will feel the effects of lower oxygen availability at half this, while others need to go even higher. There’s an upper limit beyond which altitude is mostly stressful and offers few of the benefits and more of the disadvantages. This is around 3,000m, hence altitude training camps are usually held at between 2,000m and 3,000m.
Cyc: How long does it take to acclimatise? LP: The adaptations that altitude triggers can range from occurring immediately to taking several weeks or even months in the case of red blood cells. Most of the shortterm changes occur in the first few days, but full acclimatisation is really a process of two or three weeks and more.
Cyc: What are the effects and benefits of altitude training?
LP: Any aerobic or endurance exercise will feel disproportionately more stressful at altitude, and recovery will take longer. One long-term adaptation is that the number of red blood cells in the body increases. The more red blood cells, the more oxygen is delivered to your muscles, meaning muscles can work harder.
Cyc: How long do the effects last? LP: In general the positive performance benefits are thought to last between one and three weeks after returning to sea level. However, this is a contentious point because many scientists and coaches are sceptical that the purported benefits of altitude training outweigh the disadvantages.
Cyc: What is the current thinking on the best technique?
LP: Live high and train low is generally regarded as the most effective technique, but it’s difficult to achieve. Where can you live at over 2,500m and train at sea level without using a helicopter to get around? Therefore most athletes’ actual experiences of altitude training are really about compromising to something more like ‘live high and train a bit lower’.
Cyc: For the average rider, are the benefits enough to warrant the effort and costs?
LP: Possibly not. Unless boosting your performance by a fraction of 1% is really meaningful to you, and you’ve explored the myriad other options in terms of exercise, nutrition and psychology, I’d leave altitude training to the pros.