Run long enough where the air is thin and you can change your physiology. But high on effort and cost, is it really worth the effort?
We all enjoy a bargain when it comes to holidays, so being able to double the benefits of your two weeks away should be no bad thing. If you plan cleverly there is a way you can not only go on a brilliant summer break that allows you to properly get away from it all, but also boost your ability so you return home in prime race form. Just make for the mountains.
We’ve all heard of the advantages of altitude training for elite athletes, but is seeking out less-oxygen-dense air worthwhile for those of us with full-time jobs? In answering that, let’s look at how altitude training works. When less oxygen is in the air, as is the case at 1800m-plus above sea level, our cardiovascular systems adapt by becoming more efficient. The body produces more oxygen-carrying red blood cells. The effect is similar to that of EPO, or
erythropoietin as it’s otherwise known – only this is legal.
The catch is that it is traditionally thought you need to be at altitude for at least three weeks – longer than most of us with jobs and families can spare. However, a study published last year showed the effects could be noticed much sooner. Scientists at the School of Kinesiology at Lakehead University, Canada, found that running economy – the energy demand for a given speed, which is an important factor in performance – improved in six out of eight trained individuals after just 10 days at 1800m altitude.
However, this is just one study on a small group of subjects. It is also worth noting that VO max – the measurement of 2 the maximum amount of oxygen that an individual can utilise during intense, or maximal exercise – decreased in six out of the ten taking part.
Nevertheless, quite aside from the hard science, there are reasons you should consider altitude training even if you’re not an elite athlete. Elizabeth Egan, author
of Notes from Higher Grounds: An Altitude Training Guide for Endurance
Athletes, reckons there are hidden benefits from a trip at high altitude. “The minimum length of time required to get the physiological benefit of altitude is estimated to be two-and-a-half weeks,” she says. “But even if you can’t spend that long, you can still benefit from the change in environment, the heat and having more time to train and recover properly.”
Merely the fact that you are training like an elite athlete, even if just for a week, can be beneficial. You have time to run twice a day. Depending where you are, the weather can be more conducive and mean you are motivated to train. Further, the time you have with your feet up by the pool can aid your recovery.
Matt Thompson, a University of Birmingham psychologist, concurs. “The positives are that it’s nice to be in a training environment,” he says. “It’s a couple of weeks away from work, you enjoy some beautiful sights and beautiful places. It’s fantastic just to be spending
‘Just being in Font Romeu is invigorating. More so than running around the streets of Birmingham!’
time in those places. That’s the positive. You get to train like an athlete, train where the athletes train, get to concentrate on your running and experience some fantastic places.”
Could it be there is a placebo effect to altitude training, too? Do you come back fitter because you expect to be fitter?
“Possibly,” says Matt, who has worked alongside 1500m World Championships silver medallist Hannah England. “We know that confidence is an important factor in performance, to a certain degree. Whatever makes you feel confident can improve performance. If someone is at a [certain] level and you’re going to be there long enough for physiological adaptation then there’s going to be some robustness to that confidence.
“Personally, having gone out to Font Romeu [the French National Centre for Altitude Training] a few times and seen all the trails out there, just being out in that scenery is pretty invigorating. It’s a bit different to running around the streets of Birmingham, where I am now!”
So if you have a week or two to spare, you can definitely gain from spending it at altitude – whatever your level. However, before you jump on to a plane, there are some issues to consider when training on a high. You need to be prepared for how much more difficult running will be at higher levels and spend an appropriate number of days doing only easy running when you get there. Elizabeth advises that it’s really important to initially keep your foot off the gas. “The increased red blood cell production will eat into your iron stores,” she says.” Have your iron status checked by a doctor before travelling, and take supplements if required. Many altitude first-timers train too hard and end up drained. Reduce the intensity of your training during the first week, eat well and sleep than normal.”
“Going to altitude can be brutal,” warns Matt. “Everything’s more difficult. Psychologically, training at altitude is very hard. The physiological challenges make it tough, you’re more tired, etc. There’s also the challenge that you run slower. For some, it’s psychologically very difficult to train at altitude because you’re running slower than normal, which is a challenge.” While taking part in an altitude training camp can be of benefit to all levels, it’s not the solution for everyone. If you want to play it safe and just get in some good training, you have other options. “If you’re looking for a fun holiday where you want to get some training in,” says Matt, “I’d be more inclined to find a warm-weather camp where you can go faster because you’re a bit looser and you feel great because you’re in the sun.” There is a great deal to consider in terms of preparation and lifestyle before altitude training becomes a worthwhile option. However, if you can afford it and fancy something different give it a go – it might just give you that edge.
Performance can be boosted just by being in stunning surroundings
Be warned: training at altitude can be brutal