It seems like there's a lot of hype surrounding altitude these days. The renaissance of Colombian cycling in the last 5 years at the professional level begs the question: what's the deal with altitude?? It seems like every year there is another Colombian cyclist that comes out of nowhere and dominates the pro racing scene. These riders, who have lived at high altitude their whole lives seem to have some innate ability for endurance sports. Aside from cycling, other high altitude natives such as runners hailing from east African countries also seem to share this natural ability.
Even though many professional riders spend weeks at a time at 'altitude camps' training for their biggest events, there is actually no conclusive evidence that altitude training improves sea level performance. A number of other factors contribute to the altitude benefits acclaimed by professionals, that's a blog post for another time.
But what does this have to do with you? Many of my readers live at high altitudes in Colorado. Does altitude have the same effect for those riders? Altitude certainly can have some physiological benefits for those living at altitude, native or not. But living at altitude can also present other challenges, particularly when training for an event at sea-level. This article aims to give you the low down on altitude (haha), how altitude "works" and how you can best harness it for your training.
1. Altitude Natives
A study on Tibetan natives who lived at altitude in the Himalayas showed that these individuals had a gene that allowed their body to better utilize oxygen. This gene improves performance at sea level and altitude. The caveat is that these Tibetans' ancestors have been living at high altitudes for many thousands of years. It is likely that Colombian cyclists and east African runners also share this gene. If you are an altitude native of European descent, then unfortunately you don't have this gene.
2. The Benefits
The good news is that altitude natives of every nationality do have an advantage at altitude. Improved oxygen utilization, increased red blood cell count, more mitochondria, and several other adaptations that take decades to develop means that the higher the road goes, the more of an advantage you have as an altitude native. This can come in handy for races such as Leadville 100 or the Mount Evans Hill Climb. Those who have only been at altitude for a matter of weeks (Or even a few years) will not have these same long-term adaptations to altitude.
Additionally, anaerobic efforts of <30 seconds are also unaffected by altitude. However, even a short criterium still relies heavily on the aerobic system. Due to cycling's heavy dependence on the aerobic system, those living at altitude must prepare specially for optimal performance at sea level.
2. The Drawback
Unfortunately living at altitude also has its' drawback when it comes to sea level performance. While altitude improves red blood cell count and mitochondrial density, there are other factors that can offset these gains when the high altitude resident goes to sea level.
At altitude, there simply isn't enough oxygen for you to simulate the intensity necessary for sea level. VO2-max is a measure of how much oxygen your body is able to utilize. At altitude you can not achieve as high of a VO2-max as you would at sea level. For extended or repeated maximal efforts is where you will see a disadvantage at sea level . This can present a challenge especially for time trials and hilly road race.
Decreased Muscle Mass
High altitude has also been shown to make it more difficult to build and maintain muscle mass. This might explain why we see a lot of Colombian climbers, but not so many sprinters. This definitely can present a problem, especially if you consider yourself a sprinter.
Decrease Blood Flow
Since the body produces more red blood cells at altitude, that means that your blood is actually thicker. This is compounded by the fact that your bodies blood plasma also decreases at altitude. Thicker blood means that your heart has to work harder to circulate blood through your body. It can also make us more prone to blood clots.
3. The Fixes
So how can we minimize the negative effects of altitude, and still take advantage of all the benefits? How can we make sure we are primed for out next sea level event?
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Jensen K, et al. High-altitude training does not increase maximal oxygen uptake or work capacity at sea level in rowers. Scand J Sci Med Sports 1993;3:256. 48.
Lundby C, et al. Does altitude training increase exercise performance in elite athletes? Br J Sports Med 2012;46:822. 59. MacDougall JD, et al.
McArdle, William D, et al. Exercise Physiology: Nutrition, Energy, and Human Performance. Langara College, 2017.
Mizuno M, et al. Limb skeletal muscle adaptation in athletes after training at altitude. J Appl Physiol 1990;68:496. 71.