HIGH-ALTITUDE TRAINING: BENEFITS AND CONTRAINDICATIONS

4 MIN

High-altitude training is a practice adopted by many athletes, both professional and amateur, particularly those involved in endurance sports such as running, cycling and cross-country skiing. It involves athletes training at significant altitudes, starting from approximately 2000 metres. The benefits of this method are numerous and well documented, making it a popular strategy for improving sports performance.  

 

In this article, our personal trainers will explain in detail the main benefits and contraindications of training high in the mountains. 

 

Increased Red Blood Cell Production

 

One of the main benefits of high-altitude training is the increased production of red blood cells. At high altitudes, the concentration of oxygen in the air is in fact lower than at sea level. This reduced availability of oxygen forces the body to produce more erythropoietin (EPO), a hormone that stimulates red blood cell production. These additional red blood cells increase the blood’s ability to transport oxygen, thus improving aerobic endurance and athletic performance. 

 

The increase in the number of red blood cells and haemoglobin gives the athlete a greater capacity and efficiency to utilise oxygen during exercise, consequently leading to an improvement in so-called aerobic capacity. This aspect is particularly beneficial for endurance sports such as long-distance running, cycling and cross-country skiing, where the ability to sustain prolonged exertion is crucial. 

 

Although high-altitude sports activity is mainly known for its aerobic benefits, studies show that it can also improve anaerobic performance. Indeed, adapting the body to low-oxygenation conditions can increase the ability to perform high-intensity exercises such as sprinting and weightlifting. We can therefore state that athletes who combine aerobic and anaerobic training at high altitude can gain a competitive advantage in disciplines that require both skills. 

 

Metabolic Adaptations

 

Training at altitudes above 2000 metres can also result in significant metabolic adaptations. Due to the lack of oxygen, the body has to optimise the use of energy resources. This can improve the efficiency of fat and carbohydrate metabolism, allowing athletes to maintain higher energy levels during prolonged exercise. It can also improve the body’s ability to store and utilise muscle glycogen, an important source of energy during strenuous exercise. 

 

Mountain training also improves the body’s ability to reduce the build-up of lactic acid and facilitate its disposal. During intense exercise, lactic acid can build up in the muscles, causing fatigue and reducing performance. Exposure to low oxygen conditions can stimulate cellular adaptations that increase the body’s ability to handle and neutralise lactic acid, thus improving the person’s exercise tolerance and ability to sustain high intensity exercise. 

 

Positive Psychological Effects

 

Training at high altitude offers not only physical benefits, but also psychological ones. The challenge of training in difficult conditions can increase self-confidence, resilience and mental strength. Facing and overcoming the difficulties associated with high-altitude training can give athletes a sense of achievement and determination, which translates into increased motivation and concentration during competitions. 

 

Physical activity in the mountains, for those not used to it, is therefore a good variation to the training routine, from which athletes can benefit, particularly considering the change of environment and the new challenges it brings. All this can prevent overtraining and monotony, while ensuring that training remains stimulating. Also not to be underestimated is the fact that training in the mountains often offers beautiful natural landscapes, which can improve mental well-being and provide additional motivation. 

While it is true that elite athletes can benefit from training in the mountains, all athletes can actually achieve significant improvements in their performance! 

 

Faster Recovery

 

After a period of training above 2000 metres, athletes often experience a “super-compensation” phase on their return to lower altitudes. During this phase, the physiological benefits gained can translate into significant improvements in performance. The increased oxygen-carrying capacity and muscular and metabolic adaptations can lead to optimal performance during competitions, especially if the training period is properly planned with a pre-competition unloading phase (tapering). 

 

Long Term Effects

 

The physiological adaptations achieved through high-altitude training can last for weeks or even months. While the full effects may diminish over time, some benefits, such as increased muscle capillarisation and glycogen reserves, may persist, contributing to the long-term stabilisation of improvements in athletic performance. 

 

Contraindications

 

Although high-altitude training offers several benefits for athletes, it also carries some contraindications and risks that must be carefully considered.  

 

Before embarking on a high-altitude training programme, it is essential to carefully assess one’s physical condition and consult a health professional or doctor specialising in sports medicine. A gradual approach that is well-planned to ensure acclimatisation can help reduce the risks associated with altitude training. 

Leaving aside the rarer problems, the main issues to watch out for are altitude sickness, which can occur if acclimatisation is insufficient, any pre-existing heart conditions, and sleep disturbances at altitude, which could impair the ability to recover between sessions, leading to high levels of overall fatigue.  

 

High-altitude training should be performed under the supervision of sports medicine experts to monitor the athlete’s health and adapt training programmes to individual responses. 

 

Final Thoughts

 

As we have analysed in this article, physical activity in the high mountains offers a number of benefits that can significantly improve athletic performance. In addition to increased red blood cell production and improved aerobic and metabolic capacity, athletes can also benefit from a number of physiological adaptations. Furthermore, psychological benefits and variations in training can provide a further boost to motivation and overall well-being. 

 

It is crucial that altitude training is carefully planned and monitored, as it can pose risks if not managed correctly. Athletes should be vigilant about the symptoms of altitude sickness and the need to acclimatise. With careful planning, a scientific approach and appropriate sports nutrition during high-altitude training, this method can become an invaluable part of the athletic training programme for many endurance and non-endurance sports. 

 

Have you ever tested the benefits of high-altitude training? 

 

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