The Effects of Altitude Training

The Effects of Altitude Training


Some of the countries have a high altitude while others don’t. About 90% of the countries that are situated at the shores of the Oceans and Seas have relatively very low altitudes. For example, when you come to Africa the highest altitude is found in the Eastern part, the Northern and Southern are a little bit high but can’t be compared to the Eastern Countries. The Western part has the lowest altitude in Africa. There are several insights and similarities to other continents as well. The Eastern African countries have altitude that ranges from 2300m above while the Northern and the Southern are around 1000m and the Western is around 800m above sea level. The effects of altitude training.

For years, altitude training has formed an important part of the training of many endurance athletes who cite it as a core part of their season. Here we break down the basic theory behind it, the difficulties athletes must overcome and the main spots to do it.

Though different definitions exist of what constitutes altitude training, we will, for the sake of clarity, consider altitudes in the region of 1500m to 3000m above sea level.

The Theory

Altitude training is very difficult because there is less oxygen and you will use more of your energy.

In simple terms, the oxygen inhaled from the air people breathe affects the energy their muscles receive to perform physical activities. Oxygen is carried around the body within red blood cells and helps the molecules in muscles perform their functions.

The higher the altitude, the lower the atmospheric pressure, which makes it harder for the body to transfer oxygen into the blood. This is why people can often feel lethargic at altitude.

In response to this situation, the brain triggers the increased production of the hormone erythropoietin (EPO), encouraging the body to make more red blood cells to better transport the oxygen available. This means, over time, the body begins to transport the limited oxygen better than when it first arrived at altitude.

When an athlete then returns to sea level this increased level of red blood cells, coupled with the higher atmospheric pressure, means the body is better able to transport oxygen than it was before and an athlete’s aerobic capacity is increased.

The body will, over time, return to normal levels of red blood cell production if the process is not repeated and the time taken for this to happen will vary from one athlete to the next.

How and when to adjust?

It takes time for the body to adapt to higher altitudes and many of the effects do not occur until after a prolonged period of time. Various studies suggest there is no increase in red blood cell count within the first seven to 10 days, meaning usually athletes choose to spend a minimum of three to four weeks at altitude.

Some athletes choose to be based at high altitudes throughout the year (e.g. Boulder in Colorado, Iten in Kenya, and Addis Ababa in Ethiopia), coming down to sea level for shorter periods around a racing season.

The problems associated with living at altitude

Early on in any stay at altitude individuals will likely find themselves to be lethargic as their body responds to the lower atmospheric pressure. Other side effects can include headaches and difficulty sleeping but these will often wear off as the body slowly adjusts to its new environment.

In extreme cases and at the highest altitudes (usually in excess of 3000m), severe failures to adjust can result in acute mountain sickness (AMS) with a range of possible harmful effects.


Athletes will also find it difficult to replicate the pace they are able to run at sea level because of their body’s reduced ability to transport the available oxygen.


Many will therefore choose to head to a lower altitude to perform much of their more intense training. This approach is generally referred to as “live high, train low” but it is an approach only possible where different altitudes exist in close proximity.



Where to train?

Kenya and Ethiopia are the preferred destinations of most athletes. Kenyas and the Ethiopians have set up a lot of training camps for both local and international athletes. These training camps are paid for. Most of the athletes always train in groups.

There are a number of locations where athletes choose to train across the world but some locations are particularly popular. These include Iten (c. 2400m) in the Rift Valley, home to many famous athletes including Mary Keitany and Lornah Kiplagat.


Over the border in Ethiopia, established camps exist in Sululta (c. 2700m) and in the capital Addis Ababa (c. 2355m), with products including Kenenisa Bekele and Haile Gebrselassie.


Europe plays host to a number of Alpine and Pyrenees resorts, including Font Romeu (c. 1850m) in France, and St Moritz (c. 1856m) in Switzerland.


The USA has a number of high altitude hubs, with Boulder (c. 1624m) in Colorado a huge centre of North American running as well as Flagstaff (c. 2106m) in Arizona and Albuquerque (c. 1619m) in New Mexico.


Other locations include Mexico City (c. 2240m), Potchefstroom (c. 1378m) in South Africa, Falls Creek (c. 1600m) in Australia, and Ifrane (c. 1660m) in Morocco. All locations come with their various pros and cons so it is important to research properly prior to any trip to altitude.


The Otherside?

Some get the advantage to train at these areas because they were born there. The elite athletes travel to these areas and later settle there. Some of the athletes rent houses while others are in their own tent.

Some athletes choose to replicate the experience of living in these locations through an altitude tent. These tents reduce the amount of oxygen within them and can be lived and slept in without the need to move location. Some see this as a less expensive and more pragmatic alternative to long trips away from home.


Source: World Athletics

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