Elevation Training - What Are The True Benefits?

We are so lucky to live within a short driving distance to a town that sits at nearly 7,000 feet and offers the perfect training destination during our horrendously hot summer months.

The psychological benefits of taking a long weekend getaway up north are numerous, but do the often perceived physical performance benefits of training at elevation actually hold up when we take a closer look at the research?

In 1997, researchers Levine and Stray-Gunderson completed what is now considered a landmark study on altitude training. The gist of this study determined that performance benefits occur when living at high altitude (8000-9200 ft) for greater than 22 hours a day and training at lower altitudes (4000ft) for 1-2 hours/day. This training structure was named the live high-train low method (LHTL).

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Thirty nine competitive runners (27 men, 12 women) participated in this study which also looked at the benefits of living and training at high altitude (Live High-Train High) and living and training at low altitude (Live Low-Train Low). However, these participants did not experience the same benefits at the LHTL group.

The athletes that LHTL experienced an increase in their Vo2 max and their 5k time trial times which equated to roughly a 1-2% increase in their fitness. The kicker however, is that that it took approximately four weeks of participating in the LHTL method before performance gains occurred. The other kicker is, out of all of the participants that participated in the study only 39% of the athletes experienced the above mentioned improvements. Not every athlete that utilized the LHTL experienced the benefit.

Some of the possible reasons for the 1-2% increase in fitness that the responding athletes experienced include: decreased lactate production, increased EPO, increased muscle buffering capacity, and decreased mechanical efficiency (or an increase in neuromuscular control). Weak positive correlations to the possible fitness improvements include: increased red blood cell count, and increased hemoglobin mass.

So, for us Phoenicians that want to train up north for a weekend what does this mean? Well, to truly reap the benefits from which this study has determined only a small number of individuals benefited, we would have to live at elevation (8000-9200 ft) for greater than 22 hours/day and train at lower elevation (4000ft) for 1-2 hours/day for four consecutive weeks before we could potentially gain 1-2% in fitness. And, the likelihood that we are a responder to this type of training is very minimal.  

So to sum this up, if anything, there are enormous psychological benefits to taking a long weekend to train up north. And, if you return to Phoenix and swear you’ve experienced performance benefits of training up north for a few days, maybe consider the volume and intensity you trained, the amount of rest and relaxation you experienced, the possible social interactions you experienced, and the escape from normal weekend chores that occurred while away that weekend. It’s quite possible that the concept of functional overreaching, the additional rest and relaxation, and the other above mentioned elements were the main contributors to your fitness gains. No matter what, a gain is a gain and a weekend up north is always worth it!

If you’re looking for a challenging, yet exceptionally beautiful bike route with nearly 5K of elevation gain over ~70 miles, I highly recommend checking out Sunset Crater just north of Flagstaff. This route is definitely worth the trip. Happy training!

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