Altitude training debunked!

Let's go train in Kenya. They are at altitude. They run fast. It must work. Sounds logical, no?
Let's go train in Kenya. They are at altitude. They run fast. It must work. Sounds logical, no? Image: GLobe and Mail

I really love it when science calls out commonly believed truths. For more years than I care to remember, well funded athletes have been sleeping in hypoxic tents, taking helicopter flights to exotic training locales and spending time, effort, money and a ridiculous amount of logistics trying to squeeze every last ounce of benefit from their training regimes.

One technique privileged by the privileged, has been to train in accordance to the live high, train low (LHTL) approach wherein athletes train at see level and recover at altitude (or simulated altitude) as a means to legally increase red blood cell production. But – this is where things get interesting – has anyone every taken the time to question this approach? Does it work? What physiological adaptations does the LHTL approach generate? Do these adaptations, if any, have any effect on performance? No one had a definitive answer. Elites hired helicopters to exclusive resorts and left their loved ones at see level. No questions asked. It must work! Everyone seems to think so.

Until now that is. If you are a frequent reader of Trimes,org, you already know we like to question the status quo. So does Alex Hutchinson. That’s why we have a ginourmous man crush on him.

In an article entitled « Does altitude training really help athletes? » published earlier this month in The Globe and Mail’s Jockology column, Hutchinson reviews an eyebrow raising study.

Initial studies showed that LHTL worked, boosting aerobic performance in runners and other endurance athletes. But there was a problem: The studies weren’t blinded or placebo-controlled, meaning everyone knew who was supposed to get better and who wasn’t – knowledge that could affect how hard the subjects trained during the study period, and how motivated they were during the performance tests.


The study, which was published in the January issue of the Journal of Applied Physiology, involved 16 well-trained cyclists, who spent a total of eight weeks at a training centre on the French-Swiss border. For four of those weeks, they spent 16 hours a day in “hypoxic” rooms in which the effective altitude could be adjusted. Ten rooms were kept at 3,000 metres above sea level, while the other six were kept at less than 1,200 metres. Neither the athletes nor the scientists responsible for testing knew which rooms were which, and the athletes were unable to guess at the end of the study whether they’d been living “high” or “low.”

Shockingly, the researchers were unable to find any differences, either in blood measurements like hemoglobin mass or in cycling performance, between the two groups either during or after the training period. “It was a surprise to us,” Dr. Lundby admits.


But the question remains, if the gains from altitude training are either marginal or unreliable, why are so many coaches and athletes convinced it works? One possible explanation is the “training camp effect”: If you leave your routine worries and stresses behind, and head to a remote mountain village where all you have to do is train, eat and rest, is it any wonder that you return three weeks later feeling fitter and stronger?

While the scientific debate about altitude training is far from settled, that insight underlies Dr. Lundby’s advice to athletes trying to arrange LHTL training camps. “Spend the money on other, less complicated training camps,” he says.

Did I read that last part right? Spend less money on less complicated training camps? That cannot possibly apply to triathlon where cheap and simply are dismissed de facto.

You can come down from Boulder now.