Running alchemy: the art and science of altitude training

Altitude training is fast becoming one of the most popular training methods, not just for elite athletes, but also for keen club and recreational runners. In Australia, a country with a paucity of high mountains, hundreds of runners of all abilities annually flock to local distance running Mecca, Falls Creek in a quest to fast-track their fitness and gain advantage over their rivals.  As runners we’re aware that training at altitude can increase fitness and performance, but how does it really work? And critically, is altitude training of equal benefit for elite versus recreational and runners competing at club or sub-elite levels?

Various methods of training runners have evolved over the years and are now relatively well understood, however the art of coaching remains difficult.  How to apply these training approaches and interventions to individual runners with various goals, ages and fitness levels is a complex business. Once these human factors enter the discussion the job of establishing and constantly updating the training mix for an individual runner becomes very challenging – as Peter Coe (coach and father of Sebastian Coe) eloquently put it: “every athlete in an experiment of one.”

An AIS physiologist at work

AIS physiologist at work in the lab

Thankfully we have the masters of these complexities, the running alchemists or  physiologists to help us understand the impact of various training methods.  Get it right and you’ll be tapping into training and coaching gold, but poor choices could produce lead in your running saddle bags. Running training and coaching is definitely an art; however a solid base in science will prevent a lot of wasted time and effort pursuing strategies that have been proven to be ineffectual. It also helps athletes and coaches prioritise their efforts and training approaches – something that becomes increasingly important as you begin running at higher levels.  So there is a mix of science and art that leads to the alchemy of great performance.

I recently attended a coaching seminar held in conjunction with the Australian National Cross Country Championships in Canberra where leading exercise physiologist Dr Philo Saunders and Professor Dick Telford and other experts discussed this topic and a range of other training methods and approaches for distance runners of varying ages, development and ability levels.

Dr Philo Saunders

Dr Saunders is a Senior Physiologist at the Australian Institute of Sport that has written extensively on altitude training and works with Australian elite swimmers and track and field athletes in this field. He also coaches and competes at an elite level in middle and long distance running.

Professor Telford is a high performance coach and one of Australia’s best known sports scientists. He currently coaches Australian Commonwealth Games marathon medalists Lisa Weightman, Michael Shelley and Australian Mile record holder Lisa Corrigan who also spoke at the seminar.

Professor Dick Telford

Altitude training benefits for runners

Classic altitude training involves training and living at between 1800m to 3000m for a period of two to three weeks (Saunders, et al 2009). The primary benefit of this type of living and training arrangement is to stimulate the production of red blood cells and therefore increase the ability of the body to transport oxygen to the muscles via the bloodstream. Red blood cell count could increase by as much as 7% over a period of three weeks.  This is in effect the natural way to achieve similar outcomes that some athletes use to cheat by using banned EPO.  Additional potential benefits of altitude training are improvements in running economy (Saunders et al 2004) and the ability of the body to tolerate the production of lactic acid. These benefits tend to manifest somewhat faster than increases in red blood cells.

Relative benefits of altitude training for runners

As runners and coaches we have a mind-boggling set of decisions about how to construct and orient an effective training program. The complexity lies in the choices about where to focus effort and how to achieve maximum bang-for-buck in improving a personal best time and/or long term development of running potential. These choices are difficult whether you are coaching junior athletes, club runners, recreational runners or an Olympic hopeful. The diagram below indicates a number of areas of focus that can be used by runners and coaches to stimulate improvements.

What is really clear to me is that the closer to the top of the running pyramid that you are, the more complex the training choices and interventions become. The good news is for coaches of junior runners or regular recreational and club runners is the training mix does not need to be quite so intricate. This is where, based on the expert opinion of the presenters at this seminar, we need to be cautious about unilaterally applying altitude training as a magical formula for running success.

I was keen to get some perspective on altitude training for regular runners or those competing at the club level and it turns out that heading to the mountains might not have quite the impact that you are hoping for unless you’re highly trained and competing at the elite level.

Highly trained and elite runners have many years of accumulating higher relative volumes of mileage and will therefore benefit more from altitude training than runners with less training experience and volume under their belts.  While runners of all stages of development can benefit from well planned and executed altitude training, the reason elite runners tend to benefit more relates to the key physiological adaptation that occurs from a good volume of aerobic (slow to steady pace) running over a long period of time (many years). The muscles begin to increase the amount and relative density of tiny blood vessels (capillaries), therefore your muscles can receive more blood and oxygen which increases your ability to run longer at steady speeds. Think Arthur Lydiard’s long slow distance (LSD, but not the drug!) and you’re on the right track.

What this effectively does is increase the amount of plumbing in your body.  And as Professor Telford indicated, you might be able to increase your red blood cells by training at altitude, but if your oxygen rich blood can’t reach deeply into the muscles because your plumbing is not fully developed, then you will not be able to benefit to the same extent as a highly trained runner. Your muscles need to be able to accept the benefit of altitude training to maximize its benefits.

By that rationale, altitude training is something that you would gradually add into the training mix over time as you were striving to achieve very small increases in performance. That is, after a number of years of gradually increasing training volume and ensuring that your running mechanics and technique are as sound as possible. In my opinion, for recreational and club runners, strength training, for example would have a greater relative priority than altitude training, as would the gradual addition of training volume over many years. So going to the mountain is not necessarily going to turn your running into gold unless you already have a great foundation of running fitness and are biomechanically pretty sound (good running form). The reason elite runners tend to seek out time at altitude is that they have often exhausted the possibilities for improvement that are readily available for recreational and club runners through untried training methods e.g. strength training, plyometrics, higher mileage or better training in general.

Coming down from the mountain

While you may not experience any epiphanies from your spell living in the rarified air, some athletes do enjoy increased levels of performance.  Depending on the individual, and their training background, this could manifest as a cracking new personal best time in race conditions or more subtly, the runner may be able to train relatively harder at sea level for a period of one or two months.

The key benefit of altitude training is not necessarily to come down off the mountain and immediately smash your personal best time, of equal importance can be the ability to produce one or two months of harder training than you otherwise might have been capable of achieving – in a sense, according to Laura Garvican of the AIS, it may speed up your overall training progress and development. Ryan Hall’s description of the “third lung” impact he believes he achieves through regular stints at altitude is the effect that every runner would want to feel after a stint on high.

You need to be a healthy runner to benefit from altitude training

One of the most critical elements you need to be aware of before embarking on an altitude training camp is to make sure your body is healthy and that your nutrition and hydration levels are adequate. By this I mean do not attempt to use your altitude training camp as the time to try and lose weight. Your body is likely to trip quickly into survival mode and any potential gains in fitness from spending time at altitude will be lost. Your body needs adequate food and liquid to create red blood cells – in particular protein and iron rich foods should to be consumed. Hydration should also be monitored as you lose more fluids training at altitude. The presenters really hammered home this point – the body must be in an adaptive state to benefit from altitude training. If it is not, you’re wasting your time and potentially doing damage to your health. Testing your iron levels – especially stored iron or Ferritin is a good idea before you head for the hills as without adequate iron levels you won’t be able to produce the desired increase in red blood cell count.

Read more information about iron and your health here.

Your running biomechanics need to be in synch with your fitness

This is something that Professor Telford mentioned in relation to my question about the relative benefits of altitude training. You need to keep fitness, biomechanics and strength in balance and harmony.  This is definitely what my training philosophy is about and where I’m continuing to research and learn from more experienced coaches, scientists and runners. So while a surge in fitness from altitude training might on the face of it appear to be a good thing, if your running mechanics and technique are suspect, then you might be tempted to over-reach in your training and become injured.

How long do you need to train at altitude to benefit your running?

You need at least 10 days, preferably between two and three weeks to get any real and lasting benefit. The presenters also believe that the regular injection of altitude training into your program over many years is likely to be the best way to gradually accumulate benefits without risking injury in one all or nothing visit to the hills. The length of time needed to get good benefit makes it tough for athletes holding down jobs and/or looking after families.  However there’s so many other areas to work on that most of us shouldn’t worry that we’re losing ground on the competition.

How hard and fast to run at altitude?

There’s no doubt you need to slow down, less oxygen to breathe means you’ll not be able to replicate the same level of training performance that you would be capable of at sea level. Adjustments are something you should discuss with your coach and seek information on that is tailored to the conditions, altitude and your current level of fitness. Don’t be tempted to train too hard if you’re at an altitude training camp.

How high do you need to be to benefit from altitude training?

It’s conceivable that you could get some benefit from training higher than 500m above sea level, certainly I’ve noticed a few city dwellers struggling when they have a run with me at about 600-700m above sea level in Central Victoria, so there could be something in it. However most elite runners would look to live and train between 1800 and 3000m above sea level to really amp up the benefits.

Training camp effect

Just when you thought is was all easy and you understood that altitude training was going to the icing on your running cake, along came the training camp effect. As the name indicates, runners tend to get a boost in performance from any kind of structured group training environment and it dose not appear to matter that much whether the environment is at altitude or sea-level.

One study discussed at this seminar compared the adaptations of a sea level based group of athletes to a altitude based group. The two groups completed a training block and then measured their relative improvement – it was the same: 7%.  Another study produced similar results with an altitude, placebo and sea level group all improving 4%. Look out for more on this from Hannah Flannery in the next edition of Run For Your Life.

Running conditions and surfaces

One of the potential downsides of living and training at altitude (especially in the northern hemisphere) is the propensity for snow, slush, rain and dangerous icy conditions. When I was reviewing Ryan Hall’s book I couldn’t quite get my head around whether the depressing and dangerous conditions he was running in at Mammoth Lakes were really conducive to doing any decent training.  In Australia, the popular destination of Falls Creek also appears to present runners with indifferent footing. I’ve seen quite a few photos of runners doing harder sessions in a narrow wheel rutted track that could lead to poor technique and injury because the legs and feet are being channeled into a central line rather than the optimal and stable position in-line with and under each hip. The running technique tip for altitude training is to choose your training surfaces carefully – training at altitude is not worth increased risk of injury if the conditions are dangerous or injury inducing.

Conclusion

As with all things running, consistency and patience is key when it comes to introducing altitude training into the mix. A few weeks a year at altitude year on year for runners with a good base of fitness can provide regular stimulus into your training and much needed and enjoyable variety. However runners and coaches should weigh up the relative benefits of altitude training for runners carefully before heading to the hills.

Thanks to Tim O’Shaughnessy, National Event Coordinator (Distance) from Athletics Australia for organising the seminar and to the presenters, athletes and coaches in attendance that shared their insights and experiences.

For a more detailed account of altitude training check out this paper by Dr Philo Saunders and colleges.  Additional information related to running economy (including altitude training) can be found in this paper.

Thanks also to Laura Garvican for your feedback and suggestions for improvement to this article.

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