Can altitude training help you go faster in triathlon? Olympic physiologist Greg Whyte isn’t convinced.
Wouldn’t it be great if you could jet off on holiday for a couple of weeks, then come back and smash all your previous PBs. Well, by visiting a high-altitude resort, maybe you can. After all, it’s what athletes like the marathon world record holders Paula Radcliffe and Haile Gebrselassie do. Could altitude training have the same benefits for the rest of us non-professionals?
Training in the thin air of a high altitude resort can have several benefits. After a while your body begins to produce more red blood cells. These help carry oxygen to your working muscles, so you can work harder. The real benefit comes when you resume training and racing at sea level, and you’re still left with all those extra red blood cells. They’ll supply your muscles with more oxygen, meaning you’ll perform better than ever before.
Is it suitable for triathletes?
So, if altitude training helps marathon runners to break records, does that mean triathletes like us should be doing it too? For most people, spending several months at altitude may not be realistic, but what about your holidays? Could two weeks at altitude be the secret training weapon you’ve always been looking for? Or are you better off staying at home?
To find out, we spoke to Professor Greg Whyte, a highly regarded physiologist who’s advised elite athletes such as Paula Radcliffe: “When you go to altitude, the quality of your training actually reduces, because the availability of oxygen is reduced. It means you get a relative de-conditioning, because you can’t get enough oxygen to train very hard.
The positive side of this is what’s called the erythropoietic effect, where your body starts producing more red blood cells. “And so the question is, does this increase in red blood cells offset the reduction in training quality? The very short answer is no. So, I think you’re better off having a two-week training camp at sea level, filled with very high- quality training.
“Athletes need at least three months at altitude to see any physiological changes, although that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be faster at sea-level as a result. If you add the effects of travel, the drop in training quality, increased glycogen (stored carbohydrate) usage, dehydration and a suppressed immune system, all of these adverse effects probably offset the value of training at altitude for a short period of time.
Altitude training at home
“Athletes like Paula Radcliffe and Mara Yamuchi train at altitude. But when you look at the best runners in the world – the east Africans – they’re born, live and train at altitude. The environment for professional athletes is different to that of most triathletes, because they are there for months on end, not just a few weeks at a time.
“Fortunately there is a compromise between being at altitude for two-weeks, and going for several months at a time, and that’s something called normobaric hypoxia. This involves the use of devices that recreate the effects of altitude training, but at sea-level. The jury is still out on this type of training.
While it may not include all the problems of traveling abroad, such as fatigue and stress, it doesn’t give you all the positive benefits of being at altitude for long periods of time.”
1 If you have two weeks’ holiday, and you want to train, you’re better off going somewhere sunny at sea level and getting loads of mileage under your belt. Having this short period of overload once a year can work wonders.
2 Try out normobaric hypoxic training. Most university sports departments and a growing number of gyms now have these altitude training facilities. They are becoming increasingly more accessible, and you can even buy them for home use.