Over the last 40 years altitude training has emerged as a game-changing method to elevate physical performance. Within this realm, three distinct training methods have surfaced:
However, over the last decade, altitude training has undergone a paradigm shift with the advent of altitude chambers and tents. This technological evolution has given rise to hybrid approaches that reflect a combination of the traditional methods above. These contemporary methods are
All the methods can be performed naturally at high elevations (i.e., in the mountains) or artificially (i.e., in chambers or tents) or a combination of both. The choice of method depends on various factors, including individual goals, the nature of the sport, along with financial and logistical considerations.
It must be noted that to gain haematological benefits (increased red blood cell count), athletes need to accumulate a minimum of 200 hours at altitude to start to see significant changes. This benefit increases linearly up to about 500 hours of exposure, after which it starts to plateau. A minimum stay of 9 hours is recommended to ensure the upregulation of EPO in the body, which triggers red blood cell (RBC) production. Despite claims, short-duration hypoxic workouts won’t trigger the EPO response. Rather, they bring about cellular and energy system adaptations.
Some athletes opt for immersion in high-altitude environments for both living and training. This approach exposes the body to reduced oxygen levels continuously, triggering adaptations that can significantly improve endurance, oxygen utilization, and overall aerobic capacity. The constant hypoxic stimulus prompts an increase in red blood cell production and thus improved oxygen-carrying capacity. For the average person, living and training at altitude can result in rapid fatigue and submaximal recovery, impacting overall training load and intensities. However, studies show that elite athletes with high fitness levels are not affected in the same way and can still reach their planned load and intensities at high elevations (Pugliese et al., 2014). LHTH is beneficial for athletes who compete at high elevations and need to acclimatize or those looking for an extra performance boost upon returning to sea level. Smart programming is essential to ensure athletes get enough quality work in while ensuring adequate recovery.
Contrary to the all-encompassing high-altitude practice of LHTH, the LHTL strategy introduces a nuanced approach. Athletes live at high altitudes to attain haematological benefits but conduct their training sessions at lower altitude or sea level. This strategy capitalizes on the best of both worlds: the physiological adaptations induced by prolonged exposure to high altitudes AND the ability to sustain higher training intensities and volumes at lower altitudes. By training at low altitudes where oxygen is more abundant, athletes can achieve higher workloads.
For those seeking the benefits of high-altitude adaptation without the logistical and physiological challenges of living at elevation, the LLTH strategy provides an alternative. Athletes live at lower altitudes but incorporate training sessions at higher altitudes. This method leverages the body's ability to adapt to hypoxic training sessions while maintaining the convenience of living at sea level, allowing for better recovery after intense sessions at high altitudes.
In this combined approach, athletes reside in a high-altitude environment (either natural or artificial altitude) and perform training sessions at both low and high altitudes. This method allows athletes to get the required training volume at low altitude, combined with the physiological and energy system benefits of training at high altitude. This amalgamation of living high and training at both low and high altitudes presents a synergistic alliance that leverages the best of all methods. Traditionally, coaches and athletes faced a dilemma: live in high-altitude environments for physiological adaptations but potentially sacrifice training quality or train at lower altitudes and keep a regular routine but forego the benefits of living at altitude. Fortunately, the advent of sleeping chambers and tents now allows athletes to maintain residence in their homes, maintain a normal training schedule, and get the benefits of living and training at altitude.
This method results in less disturbance to athletes and coaches' daily schedules as they usually remain in their familiar environment and don’t have to organize jaunts up to high elevations or sleep in chambers or tents. This method utilizes the same mixed training approach as mentioned above; athletes get the required training volume at low altitude, combined with the cellular and energy system development benefits of training at high altitude. The added benefit of LLTLH over the LHTLH method above is that living at low altitudes or sea level can result in better recovery and quality of sleep due to normal levels of oxygen present.
As altitude training is likely to evolve further, innovations coupled with a deeper understanding will refine the application of these methods. Athletes and coaches will increasingly adopt and tailor these strategies to meet the specific physiological demands of their sports, competition schedules, geographical location, and financial budgets.
Jake Ward is the Sales Manager at Altitude Training Systems and has a background in strength and
conditioning, as well as applied sports science, having worked with elite sporting organisations and
sport technology companies.