Elevation Training - Does it work?
Matthew Rowe looks at the use of elevation training and how it may help improve athletic performance.
There has long been a debate in the world of sports science about the seemingly endless stream of supreme long-distance runners that come out of Kenya. For many years it was considered that this was purely biological - a natural ability passed through the generations. But over the last 40 years, exercise physiologists increasingly believe that far more of this ability may be based upon their environment rather than pure genetics. The Kenyan runners train at high altitudes where the air is rarefied, meaning there is less natural oxygen content. This forces the body to have to work much harder, pushing the lungs, heart, and muscles way beyond the norm and helping them develop far superior fitness and endurance capabilities. When these athletes return to sea level to take part in a competition, they find that they are significantly stronger and more powerful, making the race much easier for them, compared with most other competing athletes. The effects of the altitude training are believed to only last a few weeks at the very most, once the athlete returns to sea level, but of course, this is sufficient time to take part and perform in competition.
So, what exactly is Elevation Training?
It would be impractical to move any Olympic athlete halfway up a Kenyan mountain to train for several months at a time. But with the invention of elevation masks, any athlete from beginners to professionals can now simulate the training conditions of high-altitude training wherever they are in the world.
Elevation masks are explicitly used for simulated altitude training. The mask is secured around the head and covers the mouth and nose. Chances are you will look like a baddy from the Batman movie, but the mask has a serious purpose. It partially blocks airflow while you engage in exercise, restricting the amount of oxygen available to you. You can change the settings of the mask to simulate oxygen-reduced air similar to those found at varying altitudes. You can perform just about any exercise as you would normally from lifting weights to cycling and running, all while wearing the mask.
Who uses Elevation Training?
In the past elevation and altitude training were only used by the military to help prepare their troops and improve the soldiers' physical abilities. It has been reported that the Navy Seals had a special gym made with a controlled oxygen atmosphere that would recreate conditions of training at over 10,000 feet. Today the military still uses altitude training and elevation mask training when preparing troops for mountainous conditions, such as deploying troops to Afghanistan. But in the world of professional sports science, there remains some debate over this training principle, with some sports scientists playing down the effects that altitude plays upon the athlete. However, the fact remains that there is such a large body of clinical theory supporting it, that many leading professional athletes, from cyclists to runners and even record-breaking Olympians like Michael Phelps, now use altitude and elevation training as part of their race preparation.
What is the science behind Elevation Training?
Elevation training can improve the athlete's endurance and recovery time by effectively forcing their body to adapt to high altitude conditions. In such conditions the kidneys respond by sending erythropoietin (EPO) to the bone marrow, forcing the body to increase the production of red blood cells. There is also evidence it may increase one's natural HGH levels. More red blood cells result in more oxygen to supply the exercising muscles - the key to any athlete. The increased red blood cell count improves aerobic performance and in so doing delays the onset of fatigue.
How should Elevation Training be implemented?
Simulated high altitude training is not for the uninitiated. It is very tough to train in such conditions, and it is therefore important to not only have a good base level of fitness before you begin but also to build up gradually. Many athletes try to do too much too soon. They may put on the elevation mask and try to train as normal. This is highly counter-productive as it takes away the energy the body requires to create more red blood cells, negating the benefits of simulated altitude training in the first place. Instead, it is recommended that athletes do not push themselves in the first seven days of elevation training, working at a sub-maximal level, and after that, continue to build up gradually.
There is much debate on the various merits of elevation training and the extent to which it can improve athletic performance. There is also debate as to which specific altitude is the most effective, as it seems that all athletes will react differently to the simulated conditions, meaning there will be naturally, mixed results.
It is important to realise that elevation training certainly will not perform miracles. The hard work still has to take place at sea-level with consistent training linked with natural ability. But when races can be won or lost over hundredths of a second, any competitive advantage in one's training program can be indispensable, and many athletes believe in the benefits.
Whilst the jury may still be out on quite how effective elevation training may be, it is certainly not going to harm you to try. As with any training program, the important concept for any athlete is to embrace new concepts, rather than standing still. This applies equally to any recreational athlete too. We need to push our workouts to different levels. It is only by introducing new dimensions and new challenges to our workouts that we ultimately progress.
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About the Author
Matthew specialises in Exercise Physiology and Personal Fitness Training. His knowledge and abilities have helped him to train some of the UK's leading sports professionals from the world of athletics, rugby, and football. Matthew is a senior sports scientist, lecturing and training personal trainers and sports coaches nationally. For more information visit www.motivatept.co.uk.