Many factors have contributed to the success of Kenyan and Ethiopian athletes over the past decades. One of these is the fact that they live and train at altitude.
At high levels of altitude, the body is forced to increase the number of red blood cells to satisfy the increased need for oxygen. This, in turn, leads to increases in your oxygen-carrying capacity and results in a greater level of endurance.
For those not having the luck of living at altitude, the use of specific training at altitude camps has become the norm for elite athletes. Paula Radcliffe was one of the best-known British athletes that regularly trained at altitude in Font Romeu, France.
In this article, we’ll look at the benefits of training at altitude, how to plan your trip to altitude, the best altitude training destinations in Africa, Europe, and the US, and a look at alternatives closer to home.
We will discuss:
- What Are The Benefits Of Training At Altitude?
- How Best To Plan Your Trip To An Altitude Centre?
- How Long Should You Spend At Altitude?
- The Best Altitude Training Destinations
- Are There Alternative Methods?
What are the benefits of training at altitude?
In simple terms, the oxygen inhaled from the air we breathe affects the energy our muscles receive to help us perform physical activity. Oxygen is carried around the body within red blood cells (hemoglobin) and helps the molecules in our muscle fibers 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.
In response to this situation, the brain triggers a reaction in the form of increased production of the hormone erythropoietin (EPO), encouraging the body to make more red blood cells to improve the transport of the oxygen available.
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.
In addition, the fact that you will learn to tolerate higher levels of discomfort with the lack of oxygen can lead to huge gains in confidence.
How best to plan your trip to an altitude centre?
The most important thing to remember when you go to altitude is that you should ease into it and go easy at first.
One of the keys is to give yourself enough time to acclimatise.
It is tempting to go out on your first day and run at your normal training pace. However, your body will take some time to get used to the thinner air. You will probably feel tired and lethargic, but these feelings will subside as your body slowly adjusts to its new environment.
If you stay for a second week, then you could gradually introduce a little more intensity into your runs – tempo runs at half marathon pace, but no quicker. Only if you are there for 3 weeks or more should you attempt to run interval sessions.
Irish marathon runner Greg Roberts spent 4 weeks at altitude in Iten, Kenya, back in 2010. He remembers during his second week, he performed some fast-speed work sessions, “They were lung-busting sessions, and I was really gasping for air afterward. In hindsight, I should have waited until at least the third week before attempting this type of intervals.”
It’s important to remember that you will likely not be able to hit the same splits that you are used to at sea level, so one suggestion is that you run without a watch in some of your sessions and run using effort levels as a guide.
Another important consideration is the use of iron supplements while you are training at altitude. You should include iron-rich foods such as red meat, beans, broccoli, and other greens before and during your stay at altitude. This will ensure you get the best possible boost from the increase in red blood cells.
How long should you spend at altitude?
It takes time for your body to adapt to altitude, and many of the benefits derived from spending time at altitude do not occur until after a prolonged period.
There are studies that suggest there is no increase in red blood cell count within the first 7 to 10 days, meaning that athletes usually choose to spend a minimum of 3 weeks at altitude.
According to Ari Nummela, in a seminar he gave for European Athletics, if an individual stays at altitude for 1-2 weeks, they are likely to see a 1-2 increase in hemoglobin mass. If they stay for 3 weeks, then they could see gains of 4%, and for more than 4 weeks, this figure could reach up to 7%.
There is evidence that the increase in hemoglobin levels that have resulted from training and living at altitude start to start to decline. Therefore, the best time to compete is during the first week or within 2 weeks after returning to sea level.
Greg Roberts, on his return from Kenya, waited until the end of the third week before racing in a 5-mile event in Dublin. He performed well below what he had expected. Later he discussed it with his coach and believes: “I felt that I had missed the window for the effects and should have raced within two weeks of returning to sea level.”
The Best Altitude Training Destinations
#1: Font Romeu, France (1800m altitude)
At this Altitude Training Centre, there is an athletics track, swimming pool, and fully equipped gym.
The centre is nestled in between some beautiful forest trails and is a favourite of Paula Radcliffe.
One of the advantages of being based here is that the nearest Spanish town Puigcerda is less than 25 minutes away by car, so you can go have the best of both worlds and sample both French and Spanish cuisine.
Also, there is a €1 bus from Font Romeu to Perpignan (where they are a lot of international flight connections).
#2: Sierra Nevada, Spain (2320m)
This High-Performance Centre based in the Monachil region of the Sierra Nevada Mountain range in Spain has been home to a number of the world´s top triathletes.
Javier Gomez and current Olympic champion Kristin Blummenfelt base themselves there for long training blocks. It is two hours from Malaga airport or 75 minutes from Granada. ()
#3: Iten, Kenya (2400m)
In Running with the Kenyans, the author Adharanand Finn takes his family along for the trip of a lifetime as they move to Iten, Kenya. The place is considered by many as the mecca of Kenya running.
Lornah Kiplagat and her husband organise trips for budding runners looking to experience the Kenyan way. They have a centre with state-of-the-art gym facilities and accommodations. They also have seminars where some of the famous Kenyan athletes of past and present share their ideas and experiences of how to get the best out of themselves.
#4: United States – Boulder (1621m)
Boulder, in the American state of Colorado, has been described as a mecca for elite distance runners. Nowadays, it is recognised as a well-established base for a lot of the world’s best runners, triathletes, and cyclists.
However, it wasn’t until Frank Shorter (marathon gold medallist from the 1972 Olympics) decided to train there in 1970 in his preparation period for the Olympics, that he and other runners started to discover the benefits of training at altitude.
Later Chrissie Wellington (4-time World Ironman champion) trained here for part of her triathlon career.
#5: United States – Flagstaff 2106m
This is a favourite of Irish marathon runner Stephen Scullion.
There are several organisations there that help organise training camps here and provide a comprehensive range of services to ensure that they can meet the needs of both elite athletes and those ambitious runners looking to experience altitude training for the first time.
Are there alternative methods?
For those who may find it different to book 3 weeks off and head to one of the altitude centres, there are other ways closer to home that could provide you with some of the benefits that being based at altitude offers.
The use of altitude tents will simulate sleeping at altitude as you’ll be exposed to hypoxia (low oxygen air).
Hypoxico is one of the most established companies that provide these tents, and they can count on an endorsement by Olympic swimming great Michael Phelps, who provides a positive testimonial regarding his use of their products.
In addition to his 4-week stint in Kenya, Greg Roberts used an altitude tent during his preparation for the 2010 Dublin Marathon. He used it for 4 weeks in January 2009 and then 6 weeks in May-June 2010.
Prior to his trip to Kenya, he used the tent at the highest setting to help him acclimatise to what he was going to face there.
His main aim was to improve his recovery from his long mileage weeks, and he remarks, “I generally found the lack of oxygen grand, and it was only around week 3 that I found training benefits, such as faster recovery and having the feeling that I could run all day.”
His 2010 was a successful year, and he ran huge PBS of 67:23 in the half-marathon and 2:21:18 in the marathon.
We presented here a summary of the benefits of altitude training, how best to prepare for your trip, where to go, and a consideration of alternative options.
However, if you are looking for a more detailed insight into the altitude destinations mentioned in this article, you could consider getting a copy of the excellent book Notes from Higher Grounds by Elizabeth Egan.