Many athletes are encouraged to improve their performance at low oxygen concentrations, although experts recommend altitude training only for elite athletes. Find out why.
Altitude training is in vogue. Many athletes are encouraged to improve their performance at low oxygen concentrations, even though experts recommend it only for elite athletes. Do you want to know why?
What does altitude training consist of?
Every time there is a top-level sporting event, there is a lot of talk in the media about altitude training. It is a practice that is gaining more followers daily in professional sports. Going to a higher altitude area to train at lower oxygen concentrations to perform better when returning to sea level is in vogue among professional athletes, especially in sports where resistance is a particular concern.
Although there is no consensus in the scientific community on the benefits of this practice, various studies and the results of athletes who train at altitude confirm the suitability of these high-performance sessions.
However, even if there are doubts about the benefits, the risks to the cardiovascular and nervous systems are more than proven, which is why experts recommend this type of training only for top athletes.
This training series must be planned and accompanied in detail by a team of experts. People who do not seek advice from these professionals should only do these workouts if they want to maintain their fitness level and, most importantly, their health.
How does altitude training work?
The key to altitude training is to increase the human body’s resistance by acclimating it to an environment with little oxygen, a circumstance to which the body responds by producing more red blood cells, thus increasing the athlete’s resistance when back at sea level.
In this practice, genetics plays an undeniable role because the predisposition of the human body is decisive for these changes. Except in very special cases or after very long stays, the changes in the body regress in less than a week, which is why it is important to perform this type of training just before a sports event.
Therefore, it is not advisable to plan altitude training at the beginning of a season preparation since the benefits are only short-term and must adapt to the competition rhythm of the professional.
How to start altitude training?
Altitude can have a negative effect on the body, causing dizziness, vertigo, headaches, loss of appetite, insomnia, or increased blood pressure until the body gets used to the new situation. Those who show more resistance to red blood cell production to compensate for the lack of oxygen must go to higher altitudes to achieve the same benefits, but this also increases the health risks.
Therefore, it is advisable to start with light exercise such as walking and to consume plenty of fluids to counteract the fact that the relative humidity is lower, causing the body to lose more fluid.
Constant hypoxia (lack of oxygen) can damage the nervous system and muscles. Therefore, the person must undergo a thorough medical examination before starting physical activities at altitude, followed by a longer medical check-up. Top athletes have strictly controlled this by their clubs and federations.
Risks of training at altitude
The problem with training at altitude is the duration of the load. Not only are more red blood cells produced, but other changes in the body need to be controlled. Metabolism is accelerated and burns more calories, so controlling nutrition is a fundamental requirement. In addition, the blood tends to thicken at altitude, leading to serious cardiovascular problems with prolonged exposure.
The greatest danger, however, is the effects of hypoxia (lack of oxygen) on the nervous system. The brain and sensory organs are particularly sensitive to oxygen deficiency and can suffer irreversible damage.
If, for example, there is a drop in pressure in the cabin during air travel at high altitudes, the occupants lose consciousness within seconds due to the lack of oxygen. For this reason, all passengers have a mask to use when necessary, as emphasized in the cabin crew’s pre-flight safety briefings.
In altitude training, the effects of oxygen deprivation are progressive. This is followed by numbness in various organs, general fatigue, and finally, loss of consciousness. The danger is that the first symptoms are euphoria and the absence of a sense of danger, so there is no indicator or alarm signal for the athlete who does not have adequate vigilance and monitoring.
Although these symptoms usually do not appear until the athlete reaches 6,000 meters above sea level, signs of hypoxia can be seen as early as 1,200 meters, such as loss of night vision. At altitudes of 2,000 meters and above, mental performance decreases; at altitudes above 3,000 meters, even thinking ability can be lost. It is fatal, above 8,000 meters.
How to train at altitude?
Generally, top athletes train between 1,500 and 2,500 meters above sea level. The effect lasts at least a week and a maximum of three weeks to ensure a good fit.
To perform this altitude training, you must first go through four acclimatization phases because you can not suddenly start exercising at this altitude.
- At first, there are no obvious physical changes at an average altitude, although the body is already starting to get used to it.
- After accommodation, lung ventilation and heart rate increase.
- The third phase consists of episodes of euphoria and depression, which should not last long. Otherwise, one would speak of altitude sickness. Once this phase is over, the heart rate returns to normal, and acclimatization is complete.
- Then the training tables can be tackled. These are usually less intense than at sea level because the effort to which the human body is subjected is greater, increasing the possibility of deterioration of health due to overexertion.
Experts recommend living at a higher altitude and exercising below it, between 2,400 and 2,800 meters. This way, the body becomes accustomed to hypoxia, and training can be intensified in lower regions. Other top athletes, however, opt for the opposite system. They are accommodated at a sufficient altitude to acclimatize and then move to higher altitudes to stress the organism.
Where can you do altitude training?
There are high-altitude training centers worldwide, spread over five continents. As a rule, most of them are below 2,000 meters.
Latin America is beginning to distinguish itself, researching the benefits and practice of altitude training and creating modern facilities for its practice.
Thus, in this continent, some cities are located at high altitudes above sea level, forcing their athletes to perform special training sessions.
However, the most famous centers are located in North America, especially in Mexico and Colorado (United States), although there are more and more sports medicine institutes specialized in this field throughout the continent.
Another option that is becoming increasingly popular worldwide is the use of hypobaric chambers, i.e., hermetic rooms in which certain altitude conditions are simulated, making it possible to determine in advance the athlete’s tolerance to a lower concentration of oxygen in the air, causing the body to react as it does when training at altitude, producing more red blood cells and improving physical performance.