The Benefits of High Altitude training – with Eilish McColgan
High Altitude training is nothing new in sports. It has been used for decades by endurance athletes to increase their capacity to exercise, and as the record books will tell you, Africa runners born and bred at high altitude are known for their exceptional natural endurance levels. Whether a cyclist, runner or nordic skier, training high above sea level (preferably above 2,000m) can have significant affects on an athletes performance.
So what exactly happens to the body when high above sea level?
The higher up you are in the World, the lower the oxygen levels in the atmosphere. Exposing the body to this low level of oxygen forces the body to develop coping mechanisms. One of the biggest of these mechanisms is the release of the naturally occurring hormone Erythropoietin (EPO) which triggers the production of more red blood cells in order to aid in oxygen delivery to muscles. (You can see why some athletes have chosen in the past to use the performance-enhancing synthetic version of EPO to boost their performance).
Training at high altitude for a long period of time allows the body to continually produce more of these red blood cells, with the effects lasting 10-20 days once the athlete has returned to sea level. If a competition occurs during these 10 – 20 days, the athlete has a competitive advantage (legally) as they can take advantage of their changed physiology.
Their is no perfect science behind this type of training and their is no specific length of time at high altitude that correlates to a specific number of days the effects last, but athletes all over the World from all different types of endurance sports take advantage of the affects year on year.
We recently interviewed GB endurance athlete and Rio 2016 Olympic finalist in the 5,000m Eilish McColgan, who explains the affects of high altitude on her body:
“When you first go up there, even walking is difficult, as soon as you try to jog you run much slower than you would at sea level. When you come back to sea level however, you feel such a big difference and you feel like you have more oxygen in your lungs, its quite difficult to explain. You feel like you can breath better, you feel stronger as a runner when you come back.”
Where do athletes go for high altitude training?
There are many places around the World which athletes train at high altitude which are carefully chosen to meet the needs of their sport. Cyclists tend to pick very mountainous terrain which allows them to not only experience the affects of low oxygen, but also gives them plenty of hills to cycle up and down to give their legs the full lactic treatment! Places such as Mount Teide in Tenerife or the Alps in Europe are perfect places for this.
Endurance runners such as Mo Farah, David Rudisha and Eilish McColgan, visit Kenya year on year to experience the high altitude and to take advantage of other things such as the rawness of their training, the inspiring people they meet and also to strip away any distractions from their focussed training:
“Kenya is one of the most amazing places to train, it is probably up there as one as my most favourite places. At the same time it is also one of the hardest places to run in the world! The high altitude means there is less oxygen in the air. You are so high up and it is a very remote area, so there is nothing to do apart from eat, sleep and train. But you are so tired from running and from the affects of high altitude thats all you want to do!
The terrain in Kenya is also very different, its very rutted, its extremely hilly and there is no where flat. So everywhere you run is difficult and there is no such thing as a recovery run! The hills are never ending. It’s a really difficult place to train, which is probably why I love it so much. It is one of the purest places too because they don’t have the facilities that we have in the UK. They have a dirt track, and its all very basic. But they produce some of the best athletes in the World. It’s very inspiring going down to the track and seeing hundreds upon hundreds of athletes! Mainly male athletes to be honest, all running in a formation line, like a big train of people right the way round the whole track. A lot of the kids as well are so friendly, they come and run beside you with no shoes on. They are only about 5 or 6 years old, but they are running beside you singing and dancing whilst you are panting and out of breath! It’s a real eye opener, but also one of the most inspiring places I have ever trained.”
How does competing at high altitude affect performance?
Did you know there is a rule that Olympic stadiums must now be at sea level. Ever since the (some might call) disaster of the track & field events of the1968 Olympic Games held in Mexico, this became the rule.
Mexico City sits at 7,400 feet above sea level and therefore provides one third less oxygen. Whilst the World was sceptical that the IOC had awarded Mexico City the Games due to concerns of the affects of high altitude, the IOC had promised it wouldn’t affect the results of the events in any way. They were of course very very wrong. (Nothing new there then!)
Endurance events in all distances were slower than they had been in decades and most of the winners of the endurance events were the high altitude acclimatised African runners. However, whilst the high altitude gives endurance athletes problems, it gives power athletes a huge advantage. Because the air is so much thinner at high altitude, it means there is less resistance for sprinters and jumpers to run through…therefore resulting in much better performances. In the 1968 Olympic Games, there were World Records broken in the 100m (men and women), 200m (men and women), 400m, 400m hurdles, 4 x 100m (men and women) and 4 x 400m relays – with the most memorable and famous of World Records being Bob Beamon’s Long Jump which he broke by nearly two feet – a record that has stood for 23 years.
As a result, the rule was set that from there on in, the Olympic Games would be held as close to sea level as possible, which is one of the reasons the Olympic Park and stadiums where built along the coastline of Rio de Janeiro at the 2016 Brazilian Games.
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