Quick words on altitude training

Posted on April 1, 2015

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I was recently reexamining altitude training for something I’ll write about in the future. Here are some of my notes.

This is a solid paper on altitude training:

Does altitude training increase exercise performance in elite athletes?

David Epstein’s The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance goes into great detail on this topic too.

My main takeaways from the above two sources:

  • Altitude training research is all over the place. While there have been over a hundred studies, only a few are any good. This is too common in health / performance research. If you take all the money put into crappy studies and only did a few good ones, we’d be better off. The lack of basic things like placebos, controls, double-blind, randomization, is incredible. The fact we still do so so many retrospective survey studies, and they get published, makes you wonder about that whole high honor of academia.
  • Even for the good studies -decent sample size, high enough altitude, control group, etc.- the study is never long enough. It’s often max 3-4 weeks. Other than beginners, not much happens in that time frame, for any measure. Considering the paper wanted to really examine “elite athletes,” barely anything happens in 3-4 weeks. No elite athlete is setting PRs every few weeks. Many elite athletes are hoping to set a PR once a year, after a specific tapering period. You can’t go randomly testing these people during their training year and then compare them.
  • No matter how good the study is, you can’t have a placebo group. You know whether you’re in high altitude or not. If you’re a decent athlete, you probably already have biases towards or against altitude training. Lack of placebos is also common in health research, but that’s not always the fault of the researchers. Icing, wrapping, stim machines, exercise, you can’t fake these things like you can a sugar pill.
  • Anecdotally, Sports Gene covers this well, some athletes need a few weeks, some need a year or two, to see benefits from altitude training. This is where I typically side with the athletes / coaches over the researchers. The control some coaches have over an athlete’s training and lifestyle can’t be replicated by random researchers. In essence, the good coaches are the researchers.
  • Altitude training, and living -“Live high, train high,” or “Live high, train low”- both seem to help non-elite athletes, but research wise it doesn’t look like elite athletes benefit. “Live low, train high” doesn’t seem to have benefit for anybody. Those altitude masks you see some people wearing during exercise fit in here.
  • In conjunction with my thoughts above for why you may not see elite athletes benefit, you have to consider the likelihood elite athletes are doping with something like EPO. The purpose of altitude training is to boost red blood cell count, at least some think. EPO artificially does this. It’s unlikely if you’re already doping that your body is going to take this further through altitude training. The adaptation is already there, and too many red blood cells is hazardous. Elite athletes are elite for a reason…drugs often being one of those reasons.
  • The best distance runners in the world have thorough altitude backgrounds. Best Kenyans and Ethiopians are born, and train, at ~7500 ft. What’s considered the sweet spot of altitude training. A lot of other factors go into why these populations are so good at endurance running, but it’s tough to ignore this.

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