Altitude Training

By Sean Fontana
I hope you enjoyed my previous blog on training periodisation, now it's time to examine the benefits of altitude training. This is quite a cool and interesting topic that lots of people want to know about but there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of research and articles out there about the acclimation period, what training to do in the acclimation period, what happens to the blood and how to use altitude during the build-up to an important race.
There are some journals out there that speak about 3k time trials before and after altitude exposure and the effects of altitude training on V02max but they're speaking about the sciencey stuff and not the actual physical application of what to do and when to do it whilst out training at altitude. The research on this topic is quite sparse.
Firstly, what is altitude training and why do we do it?
Altitude training is when athlete’s go to certain parts of the world where there’s a lower percentage of oxygen. The higher you go the lower the percentage of oxygen and the harder it is to train. This results in you training at slower running speeds than you would normally do at sea level. Athletes go to altitude to prepare and peak for a major competition because altitude stimulates the production of red blood cells and thus creating a higher carrying capacity of oxygen in the body resulting in you being able to push your body harder for longer when back at sea level.
You have responders and non-responders to altitude training. This is where you would figure this out for yourself in regards to going away to altitude for 3-4 weeks and coming back down to sea level to race/train to see if the altitude training had a positive or negative impact on your physiology.
Going to altitude can be quite time consuming and costly so, you want to make sure you’re going away with a small training group so everyone can split the costs of car hire, petrol, hotel/air Bnb and food. This is because some place that are at altitude are a little secluded but I feel this can help you solely focus on your race preparation with minimal distractions.
What you need to know before you go
Make sure you’re taking iron supplements four to six weeks out from going to altitude. This will help boost your ferritin level’s that will allow the body to produce the red blood cells you need to help you adapt quicker to the elevation. Going to altitude and not supplementing with iron will cause your body to pull from its ferritin stores and could result in anaemia. But please consult with a medically qualified physician prior to taking iron supplementation because certain people may not get on well with certain types of iron supplements also, if you have Haemochromatosis your doctor may ask you to not take iron. So please consult with your doctor before partaking on any iron supplementation. Taking vitamin C  along with iron will increase the absorption rate of iron in the body. So, having a vitamin C supplement or some orange juice to wash down the iron tablet will help in boosting iron bioavailability.
You can also get your bloods done to see where your red blood cell, ferritin and haemoglobin levels are at prior to heading out to altitude to make sure blood chemistry is all okay before putting the stress of altitude on your physiology. Also, having a blood test when you get back can see the impact that altitude training has had on your blood work. You would be looking to see an elevation in those bio markers.
Lastly, if you have the luxury of renting an altitude tent prior to going out to your training camp. This will allow your body to start the red blood cell formation process. Consequently, this will allow you to adapt much quicker when at elevation.
Adapting and Training at Altitude
It’s extremely important you take it easy for the first week to ten days as your body starts to acclimatise to the stress of the altitude. You will only want to run easy, possibly wear a heart rate monitor to make sure you’re running at a pace that’s easy for the body. If you go too hard too soon and get carried away in the first week, you’ll dig yourself a hole and end up paying the price the following weeks. I can’t tell you the number of athletes that head out to altitude and think they’re the exception to the rule, train ridiculously hard and flop come race day after putting in all that time, effort, and money.
You will want to decrease your running mileage by around 30% in the first week, for example, if you run 60miles/100km per week you will want to run around 40-45/70km as your body will be under more stress trying to recover and adapt to the elevation. Also, you will notice your heart rate will be higher at your normal easy run paces. That’s why it’s important to know your heart rate zones because you will put the same stress on your cardiovascular system as at sea level but just at slower paces up at altitude, for example, say your easy run pace was 7m 30s mile/4.40km pace at a heart rate of 130bpm. You would still run at 130bpm at altitude but you will see that your pace may be a little slower, but the physiological stress will be the same.
When starting sessions after the seven to ten day acclimation period, make sure to increase the recovery between your interval reps, for example, if you normally do 8x1km with 60s recovery at sea level you may want to take an extra minute recovery to allow the heart rate time to come back down. Also, you may find you need to adjust your interval & threshold paces as you won’t be able to achieve your sea level paces at the start of your camp, however, you may find week after week that your paces do start to get slightly closer to your sea level times, that shows your body is starting to adjust/adapt to the altitude.
Keep these things in mind when heading out to altitude so you can get the best from your body whilst you’re there but also come race day when you want to be in peak shape.
Train hard and train smart. Only 10 weeks to go until London Marathon!