You might have heard about athletes and other sportspeople absconding to high-altitude locations for training.
Indeed altitude training has become the training-method-du-jour for sporting codes around the world. But does it actually work? And do athletes benefit from it?
Hypoxia – a condition whereby the body is deprived of adequate oxygen – has been used for decades as an additional stimulus to training by endurance athletes to:
1) Enhance performance at sea level
2) Prepare for competition at altitude.
Representatives from the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) even considered placing “artificially-induced hypoxic conditions” on the 2007 Prohibited List of Substances/Methods to avoid competitive advantages acquired by training at altitude.
Despite this apparent endorsement for altitude training’s effectiveness, results from studies of the practice are not unanimously positive.
Performance improvements, when present, are in the order of only 2–3% after several weeks of solid training.
That said, it’s worth considering gold medals in elite international endurance events are often won with a 0.5% margin.
Several approaches have evolved in the last few decades, including “live high/train high”, “live high/train low” and “live low/train high”.
Live high/ train high
Altitude training, as we now know it, became popular after the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, which is at an altitude of 2,300 metres.
Using this method, athletes both live and train at moderate altitude (usually 2,000 to 2,500 metres).
While this is known to induce significant physiological changes, such as increased haematocrit (concentration of red blood cells) and VO2max (the amount of oxygen your body can use in one minute), it has produced conflicting results with regards to enhancing performance down at sea level.
The higher one trains, the more difficult it is to maintain the intensity of the exercise, due to hypoxia, and this reduces the likelihood of a beneficial effect.
So scientists agree that the live high/ train high regime may be appropriate for competitions that happen at altitude.
Without underestimating the potentially beneficial effects of living high and training high, it’s interesting to note that team sport athletes, such as AFL players, now include altitude training in their yearly programs.
Since 2005, Collingwood Football Club has been sending its players to Flagstaff, Arizona – situated at an altitude of 2,106 metres – for a period of approximately 12 days.
Players live there and take part in varied training sessions, including a challenging hike up (and down) Humphreys Peak (3,850 metres).
And North Melbourne Football Club has begun sending its players to the mountains of Utah at the end of each season, where they train at an altitude of 2,100 metres.
There’s no doubt this type of training camp brings about both physiological and psychological benefits to the players, which could prove critical in the fourth quarter of a Grand Final.
Live high/ train low
This more recent live high/ train low approach allows some of the beneficial changes associated with altitude acclimatisation to take place while conserving the training intensity.
Athletes typically live for two to four weeks at 2,500 metres and train at much lower altitudes.
They will drive down mountains to find lower elevations to conduct their high-intensity sessions.
Of course, this may not be a practical method on a long-term basis and some countries, such as Australia, simply don’t have mountains that are high enough.
Fortunately, there are now hypoxic facilities with beds allowing athletes to sleep in an oxygen-deprived room and thereby simulate this “live high” experience while training at or near sea level.
All these approaches seem to yield performance-enhancing stimuli. But some critical elements must be respected:
1) The living altitude has to be at least 2,100 metres 2) The hypoxic exposure has to be at least 16 hours per day 3) The total exposure duration has to be at least 20 days.
Finally, high-intensity training must be maintained at the lower altitude, which is not always the case for athletes who don’t tolerate altitude well.
Overall, consistent evidence is accumulating that living at altitude and training low is the most beneficial method for improving performance at sea level.
Live low/ train high
Training but not living at altitude is another strategy used by athletes to enhance their performances.
Here, athletes rest/train at high simulated altitude (between around 2,300 and 6,400 metres) using a special mask that delivers air containing 9% to 17% oxygen for one to five hours per day, two to five days per week, for weeks to months.
The rationale behind this method is that the combination of training and hypoxic exposure is more beneficial than training at sea level alone.
While this intensifies physical effort and is used to retrain athletes after injury, studies have very rarely reported improvements in red blood cell volume, VO2max and endurance performance.
So while a well-conducted training program is essential to success in any sport, the use of natural altitude or hypoxia to further increase training stimulus and enhance performances cannot be ignored.
It wouldn’t surprise me to see younger athletes such as those playing in the U18 TAC Cup using such training facilities in the near future.
It’s also likely that not one but a combination of methods over the course of the yearly training plan would be the most optimal.
On the longer term, sport scientists will also have to consider the sport’s physical demands and the players' position on the field.
It is intuitive that a goal keeper, a full back, a midfielder and a forward will not exhibit the same adaptations to, or benefit from, a given hypoxia training program.
Of course, there are financial considerations. In some cases, the variability in individual responses to altitude training may not be worth the dollars spent on players’ trips.
But it’s beyond a doubt that AFL football, and sports training in general, has entered a new era.
And that’s cause for high spirits.