Above: Image © Wikimedia Commons, Аружан Жамбулатова

Although there are many different types of altitude training, the most effective seems to be living at high altitude, but training at sea level. This method is called Live-High, Train-Low.The basis for Live-High, Train-Low all comes down to one simple molecule that is required by the muscles for optimal performance:oxygen.

At altitude, the air is thinner, meaning that there is less oxygen available to breathe. In response to the thin air, our kidneys release a hormone called erythropoietin (say that 5 times fast), or EPO for short, which increases the amount of red blood cells in our body.This is important because oxygen from our lungs is carried to our muscles by hitching a ride on the red blood cells. So, if there are more red blood cells, more oxygen can be carried to the muscles during exercise. Athletes take advantage of this by living at high altitude(usually between 1700 m and 2400 m).

Did you know? Blood is made up of three components: plasma, white blood cells, and red blood cells. Hematocrit is a term that describes the percentage of blood that is red blood cells. Although normal hematocrit is around 45%, it increases with Live-High,Train-Low.

If you were to train at altitude where there is less oxygen, you wouldn't be able to work as hard, causing your muscle mass to decrease. So, in order to increase red blood cells athletes tend to live at high altitude (Live-High), but train at sea level in order to avoid a decrease in muscle mass (Train-Low).

Research has shown that athletes who Live-High, Train-Low can see a 5%improvement in performance. Although 5% may seem small, remember that in elite competitions, that can mean the difference of a gold medal or no medal at all.

Did you know? At the 2008 Beijing summer Olympics, Ryan Pini of Papua New Guinea finished 8th in the men's 100m butterfly. If he improved his time by 2.6% we would have beaten Michael Phelps for the gold medal!

Athletes have come up with different ways to get the benefits of Live-High, Train-Low without having to constantly be driving up and down a mountain. Some athletes set up tents in their house and sleep in the tent every night. These special tents simulate altitude by decreasing the amount of oxygen in the tent. The athlete then simply trains outside of the tent (at sea level).

A more dangerous method, which is banned by the International Olympic Committee, is blood doping. Blood doping is when an athlete increases their hematocrit without going to altitude; typically by either infusing red blood cells into their body,or injecting the hormone that causes an increase in red blood cells(EPO). Blood doping is extremely dangerous because it increases hematocrit so much (sometimes over 55%) that the blood becomes very thick, almost like syrup. When the athlete works out, the heart (which pumps the blood) has to work overtime and this can lead to heart attacks or even death.

Did you know? Doping can increase hematocrit to an unnatural level. In order to catch 'dopers', some athletic organizations will suspend athletes with a hematocrit that they consider unnatural (e.g. over 50%).

So consider this:should the Denver Nuggets basketball team be at an advantage because their home stadium is 1600 m above sea level? The next time you watch two sports teams battle it out, consider if they come from a city at high or low altitude!

Learn More!

World Anti-Doping Agency

New York Times

Sports Illustrated

An article written in 1965, three years prior to the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City; a city that is 2200m above sea level

Armstrong, LE (2000). Altitude: earth's hypobaric environment. In: Performance in Extreme Environments. Human Kinetics, Chanpaign, IL.

McArdle WD, Katch FI, Katch VL (2001). Exercise at medium and high altitude. In:Exercise Physiology: Energy, Nutrition, and Human Performance. 5thedition. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Baltimore, MD.

Stray-Gundersen, J, Levine, BD (2008). Live high, train low at natural altitude.Scandinavian Journdal of Medicine and Science in Sports. 18(1):21-8.

Jordan hails from Ottawa and received his BSc from the University of Ottawa. He then travelled to UBC in Vancouver to obtain his MSc in Human Kinetics, and is now a PhD student at UBC investigating the effects of hypoxia on cardio respiratory systems. He is a huge sports fan, but still can’t tell the difference between a triple salchow and a triplelutz.

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