By Nathan Miller, Sports Science Support at Perform at St. George’s Park
The general practice of altitude or hypoxic training is widely accepted as a means to enhance sport performance, despite a lack of rigorous scientific studies. Altitude training is now widely endorsed by elite athletes, coaches and sports organisations as a crucial component of serious training regimes. Within the last few years, impressive altitude training facilities have been built around the globe to enhance elite performance in both endurance and strength/power sports.
Physiological response to altitude training
Three key, long-term, physiological adaptations improve tolerance to hypoxia of medium and high altitudes. These include regulation of acid-base balance of body fluids altered by hyperventilation and elevated sympathetic neurohumoral activity reflected by increased norepinephrine that peaks within one week. The most important and well-documented adaptation to performance however can be attributed to synthesis of haemoglobin and an increased red blood cell volume (RCV).
Methods of training
First adopted by western athletes in the late 1960s following the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games, the live-high, train-high (LHTH) method of hypoxic training may increase performance in some, but not all athletes. A general prescription consensus of at least 12-15 hours a day exposure for 3-4 weeks exists to induce physiological adaptations. In a more modern approach to altitude training, the live-high, train-low (LHTL) method stimulates RCV increases however avoids the problem with reduced VO2max and training intensity seen at moderate to high altitudes. Hypoxia has more recently been simulated through use of altitude chambers, breathing apparatus and tents where athletes can be exposed at rest but also train in a hypoxic environment (live-low, train-high – LLTH).
Possible benefits to medicine
Recent evidence has shown that high-altitude treatment prevents airway inflammation in both allergic and nonallergic patients, improving both clinical and functional respiratory parameters. Living at altitude can also reduce the risk of death from ischemic heart disease, according the University of Colorado Denver’s School of Medicine. It was found that compared to those living at sea level, males living at a mean of 1818.7m (5967ft) lived 1.2 to 3.6 years longer, with females living between 0.5 and 2.5 years longer. Although socio-economic factors, solar radiation, smoking and pulmonary disease were taken into account, experts still believe that high altitudes offers protection against heart disease, certain forms of cancer and obesity.
The role of hypoxia could in future play a significant role in cancer therapy. Hypoxia can occur in solid tumours, increasing resistance to radiation and chemotherapy. Hypoxia-inducible factor-1 (HIF-1), a transcription factor that can regulate several biological processes including angiogenesis, cell proliferation and survival and glucose metabolism, can aid adaptation to the hypoxic-tumour response and therefore should be a focus of future study.
Altitude Training at Perform St. George’s Park
It is always important to maintain cardiovascular fitness during periods of injury. Here at Perform St George’s Park, we have a number of technologies that enable our athletes to increase or maintain their aerobic endurance whilst reducing the risk of re-injury. The physiological response to exercise in hypoxia is increased for a session of the same intensity at sea level, therefore our altitude chamber is perfect for reducing our athlete’s physical load whilst duplicating high-intensities performed in training and competition.