Altitude Training: What Works and What Doesn’t

Altitude training. We’ve all heard about it, maybe you’ve even seen guys on The Ultimate Fighter wearing training masks and running in flippers, but what does altitude training really entail?

First, it’s important to understand why people insist on altitude training to begin with. For some, perhaps they are competing at a higher altitude than they are used to. A higher altitude means there is less oxygen in the air. Without the levels of oxygen an athlete is used to, they tire more easily, even in simple exercise routines.

Research shows that altitude training can result in increased speed, strength, endurance, and recovery time.

There are three true methods of altitude training:

  1. Live high, train high
  2. Live high, train low
  3. Live low, train high

Each involves different processes and has a variety of impact on an athlete. We’ll try to break them down as best as possible.


Live High, Train High

Most studies around LHTH seem to focus in on athletes that don’t normally live in a high altitude, but simply travel to higher altitudes for training. However, they do report that such athletes report an increase in capabilities when it comes to endurance training when returning to sea level.

So what about athletes who normally live and train at high altitudes and compete at lower altitudes? Well, the same results seem to occur. LHTH is an effective method for training athletes.

It’s benefits are two-fold: athletes preparing to compete at high altitudes become acclimated to the lack of oxygen and can compete at normal levels; and athletes who come back to sea level for competition see improved performance with higher levels of oxygen in the air. These effects have been shown to last up to two weeks in athletes who return to sea level.

One of the downsides is that due to living at a high altitude, an athlete may not be able to train as intensely as those at lower altitudes (this generally goes for those who travel to a higher altitude to train, but don’t live there on a permanent basis).


Live High, Train Low

Living high while training low is expensive, no matter how you cut it. If you happen to live at a high elevation, but make a long, daily drive to sea level (I really don’t even know if this scenario is possible), obviously, that’s going to be a load of travel time.

What many have turned to are oxygen controlled tents, or even homes. These allow a person to gain the benefits of living at a higher altitude (increased mass in red blood cells and hemoglobin, higher metabolism) and exert themselves in training more.

A downside is that if a person spends too much time at high altitudes (even generic environments like the tent) they will start to lose bone and muscle mass (this generally only occurs if people live 16,000 feet above sea level or higher).


Live Low, Train High

This is the worst of all. No scientific studies so far have been able to thoroughly prove that there is any benefit to this method.

The method itself is to train in an oxygen poor environment, then return to everyday life in a more oxygen rich one. All this generally does is lower a person’s ability to do intense workouts without giving them the benefits of living at a high altitude.

People following this method gain no endurance, no increased blood flow, nothing. It’s a waste.

So when you see your buddy putting on his training mask before a conditioning session, maybe help him out a little bit. There’s no science to back up what he’s doing. The fact of the matter is if you’re at sea level, breathing air that is 20.9% oxygen, the training mask doesn’t magically filter oxygen out of the air. It just makes the muscles around your lungs work harder; but you’re still breathing air that is 20.9% oxygen (in other words, don’t waste your money).


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