UN­DER­STAND­ING ALTI­TUDE

Cy­clist gets the low­down on high train­ing from Pro­fes­sor Louis Pass­field of the Univer­sity of Kent

Cyclist - - Altitude training Knowledge -

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.

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