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Monday’s medical myth: altitude training improves overall sporting performance

As the AFL season draws closer to the grand final, clubs are already looking to off-season training opportunities to prepare players for 2013. Several high-profile clubs are forking out big money to send…

South Korea’s World Cup football team at a training center near Azadi Stadium in the Iranian capital Tehran. AAP

As the AFL season draws closer to the grand final, clubs are already looking to off-season training opportunities to prepare players for 2013. Several high-profile clubs are forking out big money to send players to altitude training camps in an attempt to gain a competitive edge.

But is it worth the effort? How much of an impact does altitude training have on overall performance?

Altitude training relies on forcing the blood’s oxygen-carrying capacity to respond to reduced partial pressure of oxygen: the “thinner air” at altitude. To do this, the red blood cells’ haemoglobin mass increases, allowing blood to carry more oxygen to the muscles and resist fatigue.

This training style gained popularity following the dominance of Eastern African runners at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. East African athletes lived and trained at altitude and therefore may have gained a competitive advantage through acclimatization.

Since then, altitude training facilities have popped up around the world. And local fitness studios have also jumped on board, offering recreational athletes the opportunity to train in similar “hypoxic” conditions without the travel.

The reported benefits of altitude training are varied, ranging from improved ventilation, to better aerobic and anaerobic performance, increased power, reduced blood lactate (lactic acid), and increased muscular efficiency.

But these benefits have not been universally accepted, nor are they applicable to all athletes.

Types of training

There are many different altitude training strategies offered to achieve these results: “live high-train high” (LHTH), as did the East African runners who lived and trained at altitude, and “live high-train low” (LHTL), sleeping at altitude to gain the benefits but training at sea level to maximise performance.

New approaches include intermittent hypoxic exposure at rest (IHE) or during continuous training (IHT) sessions, interval training (IHIT) sessions, and even “live high-train low and high” (LHTLH).

These ventures are expensive, so various alternative methods have been introduced to recreate this training environment. Hypobaric chambers – where either nitrogen is introduced into the air to reduce the oxygen concentration, or oxygen is removed from the air by filters to simulate air at altitude – are the most well known and can be found in high-performance training centres throughout Australia.

Improved performance?

Reports of performance improvements vary widely. Some studies show a 9% increase in endurance and power, along with a decreased build-up of waste in the muscles (lactate). Other studies show no improvement at all.

This is probably due to the variability in training conditions, such as altitude (ranging from training at less than 2,000m to 5,000m), duration of the camp (six days to four weeks), exposure (hours per day, sessions per week at altitude), the type of training used, and the characteristics of the participants (not all athletes respond to altitude training).

Despite this variability, even a 1% improvement in aerobic performance would have a substantial impact in endurance events such as cycling or running. In the 10,000m race at the 2012 Olympics, for example, a 1% improvement would amount to approximately sixteen seconds – the difference between finishing first and thirteenth.

But the benefits for team sports such as football are less well defined. There is almost a complete absence of investigation into the effects of altitude training in team sports such as football, where aerobic capacity is less important than individual endurance sports such as long-distance running or cycling.

Furthermore, any performance benefit of altitude training is likely to be short lived. Red blood cells have a short life-span and are replaced frequently, so benefits occur within four weeks after returning to sea level and last for only a few weeks.

There’s certainly no evidence altitude training will improve skills such as decision-making, running speed or the ability to kick goals. So there’s a good argument that the funds spent by AFL clubs on sending players to altitude training camps could be better invested in skills development.