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?

Trail Running (UK) - - The Science Behind... - Words Paul Hal­ford Pho­tog­ra­phy Red Bull

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

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