As an athlete, you typically put your body through different intense conditions to achieve your goals. You work out in the sun, in the rain, you work out when you’re tired and even when you’re bruised. But how about working out without oxygen? Yep, you heard that right, exercising with little to no oxygen supply.
That’s what happens with elevation training where athletes exercise at an altitude far above sea level and with limited oxygen supply. Like every exercise regimen, elevation training has its claimed benefits, but is it really beneficial, and more importantly, is it safe for you? That is what we discuss in this piece.
Elevation training, also called altitude training, is a “live high and train low” type of training practiced by endurance athletes or trainers at high altitudes between 7,000-8,000 feet above sea level. When exercising at high altitudes, there is less oxygen in the body; hence less oxygen is distributed to the muscles. Over time, your body gets used to the thinner air; the result of this is that it helps to increase athletes’ endurance and thus overall performance during competitions in lower altitudes.
Elevation training helps to push your body beyond limits. The body is trained to perform optimally in hypoxic environments. In these environments, oxygen does not get to the muscles to convert glucose to energy and the body relies on anaerobic metabolism. Because the body is now comfortable in an extreme environment when it gets to a comfortable environment with oxygen, it is able to perform optimally and at higher levels than normal.
Athletes that perform elevation training have increased red blood cell production and altered glucose metabolism in the muscles. During competitions in lower altitudes, the accumulated red blood cells help to give athletes a competitive edge over others.
Elevation training is commonly practiced among athletes like runners, cyclists, swimmers, mountain bikers, and cross-country skiers. To practice elevation training, you can use an altitude simulation room, altitude simulation tent, or mask-based hypoxicator system. The mask-based hypoxicator helps to keep the barometer pressure the same but reduces the oxygen content.
The benefits of elevation training include:
Elevation training helps in improving the delivery of oxygen in the body. Elevation training causes the body to increase red blood cell production in response to a persistent hypoxic state. More red blood cells mean increased oxygen delivery to muscles and other organs. Thus, these athletes get a boost when they compete at normal altitude.
Like every other exercise routine, elevation training helps athletes burn fat and lose weight. Training in hypoxic conditions causes increased metabolism, leading to fat breakdown at a more rapid rate over the next 10-15 hours. Elevation training helps in burning up to 50% calories, increase basal metabolic level by 28%, and increases leptin levels in the body.
Engaging in elevation training helps your muscles use oxygen adequately. During this training, your body produces lactic acid, and when it accumulates, it can cause muscle fatigue, causing you to stop training. Elevation training helps to increase your endurance and tolerance to lactic acid, helping your body to handle more lactic acids before experiencing fatigue.
Elevation training helps in increasing the production of red blood cells, which helps in the distribution of oxygen throughout the body. When you train at a high altitude, you are stimulating the kidney to produce erythropoietin, which is then responsible for the production of red blood cells in the body.
During elevation training, oxygen is restricted, and this helps in the production of red blood cells in the body. The oxygen during elevation training is converted into energy from the food eaten; this energy is known as VO2. This process of conversion can be achieved by engaging in elevation training, hence helping to increase endurance level and improve athletic performance.
Elevation training has its own downsides. Restricting oxygen from entering the body can also affect the overall functioning of the body system. The disadvantages of elevation training are:
One of the disadvantages of elevation training is that it affects the body’s immunity. Although this is not present in everybody, some persons, particularly those with a weakened immune system become more disease susceptible with persistent hypoxia. Thus, before engaging in elevation exercises, it is important to check that your immune system is optimally functioning and can handle the stress of the routine.
Elevation training is a stressful exercise. It increases the level of stress hormone (cortisol) in the body. During elevation training, the body is exposed to the thinner air, causing the heart and the lungs to struggle and work harder than normal. This stressful state causes increased cortisol production. The increased cortisol may also affect the muscles, resulting in a faster breakdown of muscle tissues.
Elevation training helps to increase the production of red blood cells in the body. However, over time, the red blood cells may become excessive, which can cause other complications in the body. Excess production of red blood cells causes an increased concentration of red blood cells over plasma. This results in highly viscous blood that may cause clotting complications.
Elevation training increases an athlete’s risk of dehydration. It is difficult to breathe at the high altitudes in which elevation training is performed. In addition, the air at these altitudes is cool and dry. The combination of these conditions causes the body to rapidly lose water and become dehydrated. Water loss is also worsened by the quick evaporation of moisture from the skin as the athlete is under lowered air pressure.
Different athletes will respond differently to elevation training. While it may be a pleasant and beneficial experience for some, this form of training may be potentially dangerous for others. Thus, it is important to assess your health status before starting elevation training, to ensure that you are fit enough for such an intense routine.
When looking to incorporate elevation training into your program, there are some tips and principles that you should note to yield better results. Some of these tips include;
- Reduce exercise intensity: When engaging in elevation training, you need to reduce the exercise intensity. Since elevation training restricts the amount of oxygen in the body, it is important that you slow down and reduce the intensity you put while training at high altitudes. Doing this will help you adapt healthily to training at sea level.
- Return to sea-level training slowly: Elevation training should be done slowly to avoid complications. When you return from high altitude, reduce your training intensity to allow your body adjusts safely.
- Increase elevation gradually: When starting elevation training, go easy on yourself. Do not attempt to fly before walking, instead, start slow and get your body acclimatized to a high altitude before moving one step higher.
- Try interval hill training: During elevation training, try to infuse interval hill training to get the best out of your exercise. You can run up a hill, walk back down, and then run back up again. This helps to improve cardiovascular fitness and prepare your body for high altitudes.
- Practice breathing exercises: When engaging in elevation training, try to practice breathing exercises in between regularly to help improve your lung capacity.
Elevation training has its side effects. If you train with high intensity or increase your elevation too soon, you may experience altitude sickness. The symptoms of altitude sickness are:
- Lack of appetite
Altitude sickness can be more serious as it can lead to cerebral edema (brain swelling) or altitude pulmonary edema (lung swelling).
To avoid or reduce the risk of elevation training complications, you should follow these safety precautions:
- Climb slowly and gradually; avoid climbing too soon.
- Keep yourself hydrated by drinking enough water during training as your body loses water during elevation training.
- When arriving and altitude, reduce your training intensity to avoid complications
- Consult your doctor before engaging in elevation training, especially if you have any medication condition.
- Make sure that your body has the essential nutrients required for elevation training. Work with your dietitian to know how fit your body is before training.
Elevation training is a two-edged sword. It is a routine that may be super beneficial for some athletes and potentially dangerous to others. Should you decide to engage in elevation training, ensure that you go easy on yourself. Take it slow and allow your body to adapt well to one altitude before going to a higher one. Also, prioritize, cardiovascular and breathing exercises, while avoiding high-intensity workouts. Keep your eyes on your body and know when to take a break. If you do elevation well, you should in time get to excelling above your peers and breaking all the records available.