The effects of altitude training
Nowadays no self-respecting gc rider doesn’t seem to go on altitude training. If we can believe the experts, the Tour de France cannot be won without going on an altitude trainingcamp. But why is that and how big is the performance enhancement? And maybe even more important what’s in it for you as an amateur cyclist.
Let’s start with the effects of altitude training. Humans need oxygen to survive. Oxygen gets through your lungs into your deepest lung vesicles, where it is absorbed into the blood to be transported to where ever it is needed in the body. Contrary to what often is thought there is not less oxygen at altitude. The percentage of oxygen in the air is 21% at any elevation. However, the air pressure does decrease when you go up, so the oxygen tension in the lungs is less. The pressure on your deepest lung vesicles to deliver oxygen to the blood is therefore also less and your body absorbs less oxygen. Of course, this limits performance, but it can also endanger your normal daily activities.
Luckily, the body found something on that. The human body is able to adapt or acclimatize at altitude. The immediate adaptations are the increase of breathing and an elevated heart rate. As a cyclist this is only of little use if you are already at a maximum level of exertion. The longer term adjustments are more interesting, namely adjusting the composition of the blood and making the muscle cell more efficient. When you are at altitude, the body gives a signal to produce more red blood cells. These are responsible for oxygen transport. It takes a while for this production to take place and these effects also remain present for a while, when you have already descended to sea level. The hormone erythropoietin is responsible for this signal and indeed this hormone is better known as Epo. So, in a way, altitude training is a natural doping. In addition, a long stay at altitude ensures adaptation at the level of the muscle cell. The density and number of mitochondria (energy factories in the muscle cell), where energy is converted with the help of oxygen, increases, as does the capillarity of the muscle cells, i.e. more blood vessels and thus better blood circulation.
DECREASE OF TRAINING STIMULUS
So far a stay at altitude for a grand tour seems all very logical. But there is a catch. The problem of altitude is that even with a long stay and thus after a maximum acclimatization, the capacity of the body to exercise is less. So at altitude you can simply train less hard and the training stimulus is lower. The higher you get, the lower the training stimulus becomes. Therefore, if you stay too high for too long, the loss of good training stimuli cannot be counteracted by the body’s adjustments and the performance will even deteriorate. As a solution to this problem, the so-called Live High Train Low principle has been devised. Here the athlete is at altitude for most of the day and he or she trains lower or even at sea level to be able to train well enough. In science, this form of training has proven to be the most effective, but it requires an enormous logistical operation. Therefore, what is also possible is a stay in an oxygen tent. In this tent, the air pressure is not lowered, but the oxygen content corresponds to a stay at a certain altitude. There are even cyclists who can bring their entire bedroom up to a simulated height in this way. The problem is that you have to spend most of the day in your bedroom to achieve these effects. Think at least 14 hours a day and that’s not much fun in your oxygen tent or even your bedroom.
THE RIGHT ALTITUDE
In the end, it’s all about timing and choosing the right altitude. There has been a period when it was thought that some athletes were not suitable for altitude training. 1 out of 4 athletes would react badly to altitude. By now we know that every body adapts to the altitude but especially the first days it is very important to let the body get used to the altitude very calmly and not to train too hard right away. One can get used to it after 4 days, while the other only should take it really easy for at least a week. Especially for cyclists who are going on altitude training for the first time, this is really looking for the right manner and by no means an exact science.
The altitude to expect real performance benefits is at least 1800 meters. In addition, training over an altitude of 3000 meters is never really done because the body has to recover far too long before training can take place and the training stimuli at that altitude are too low. In general, training and a stay at the same altitude between 2000 and 2500 meters is ideal. If training can be done at a low altitude, this stay can be slightly higher between 2500 and 3000 meters.
Because the acclimatization effects in the blood only start after about 5 days, it is in any case important to stay at altitude long enough. In the literature a minimum stay of 14 days is desired and in practice most altitude courses therefore consist of 21 days or more.
The effect of an altitude training camp at this altitude of approximately 3 weeks remains present for one month to a maximum of 1.5 months. It is also important to note that many cyclists experience a performance peak in the first week after returning at sea level, but often deteriorate in the second week before experiencing a performance peak again. That is why most cyclists return from their altitude stage about 2 to 3 weeks before a grand tour.
THE INDIVIDUAL DIFFERENCES
Finally, in addition to all these figures and facts, it is ultimately the athlete who has to do it. For example, a lot of altitude training camps end in a fiasco, because the training environment is too monotonous. Or because the logistics of sleeping at altittude and training at low altitude are too demanding. In addition, some places to train at altitude may be ideal for training, but they are far too isolated from the outside world, or perhaps the hotel and the food are very disappointing. With all these things, which may seem unimportant at first glance, one person can handle much better than the other, but it is precisely these things that determine the success or failure of an altitude training camp. That is why a successful altitude training camp requires a lot of planning and experience to get the most out of it.
Because of these complicating factors, it is also not so easy to predict the degree of performance improvement through altitude training. There are piles of studies that show, for example, no effect or even a negative effect of altitude training. The fact that half of the cycling peloton nevertheless goes on altitude training can probably be explained by the high degree of professional and individualised approach by trainers and coaches of professional cyclists. It is therefore much wiser for the ‘simple’ amateur to first think again whether there are no other simpler things, such as training and nutrition, to improve before setting off to more than 2000 metres above sea level.