What is altitude training?

High altitude is considered anything above 2000m above sea level. There are different classification levels of altitude. Moderate altitude is between 2000-3000m above sea level, high altitude is between 3000-5500m and the extreme altitude is above 5500m. Depending on the required outcome, training (with and without exercise) at anything above 2000m is considered “altitude training”.

What does altitude training do?

Regular training in low oxygen environments teaches the body to work more efficiently with less oxygen. It does this by stimulating physiological responses to low oxygen environments which results in creating more oxygen-carrying red blood cells and other hormones. These allow the body to supply more oxygen to your muscles allowing you to increase your endurance or anaerobic power for whatever activity or sport you are doing.

What benefits can I get by altitude training?

Some of the many benefits are:

  • Assist in acclimatising the body in preparation for high altitude activities.
  • Better performance. VO2Max levels which are a universal measure of aerobic fitness have been known to increase by up to 8% and time to exhaustion for stop/start type activities (football, soccer, rugby, cricket etc.) can also increase significantly.
  • Faster recovery. The body becomes more resistant to lactic acid which causes muscle fatigue and slows recovery.
  • A higher rate of fat burning due to the increase in metabolism and production of a hormone that reduces appetite.
  • Increased recovery time after injury when used as part of a rehabilitation program.
  • Increase in muscle size and strength due to changes in normal hormonal levels when resistance training in low oxygen environments.

How do you create a high altitude?

Our home-based systems create a simulated high altitude environment by using a process that strips the air of oxygen so that the air breathed through the face mask is at a lower oxygen level that the normal air we breathe. Air at sea level has 20.9% oxygen but the system can vary the oxygen concentration down to as low as 9% oxygen which is equivalent to around 22,000 ft (6,700m) above sea level.

Is this different to actually being in a high altitude?

Physically being at a high altitude stimulates physical changes in the body because the oxygen level is lower than at sea level. Simulated altitude whether it be a hypobaric chamber or mask-based oxygen system both produce a low oxygen environment. The difference between the two is that a hypobaric chamber creates a low oxygen content by reducing the pressure inside the chamber to below normal atmospheric pressure. The mask-based system produces a low oxygen content by stripping normal air of some oxygen so that the actual oxygen percentage becomes lower than normal oxygen levels. It does this at normal atmospheric pressure. When the body is trying to inhale air using either method, it reacts the same way (assuming oxygen levels are the same) whether the low oxygen environment has been created by reducing the pressure or the air has been stripped of some oxygen.

Short of actually physically being at a high altitude, simulated high altitude is the closest method of achieving the physical changes need to get the benefits of altitude training.

Is altitude training safe?

Unless you have pre-existing health conditions such as a bacterial or viral infection, any type of heart condition, iron deficiency, sickle-cell trait, anaemia, are using diuretics or kidney medications or have a chronic sleep disorder then altitude training prescribed in the correct manner is considered safe.

How long before I can see a benefit from training at altitude?

As soon as you are exposed to a low oxygen environment the body reacts immediately by increasing heart rate, more rapid breathing and other internal hormonal changes. The body takes a few days to get back to normal as it acclimatises to the sudden change in oxygen level. However, there needs to be regular exposure to low oxygen for at least 4 weeks to increase your fitness levels or assist you to acclimatise for high altitude activities like trekking, mountaineering or skiing.

How often do I need to train to get fitter?

Ideally no more than 3 times per week for between 20-40 minutes per session. The training to increase aerobic fitness should be done at an average oxygen level around 85% of the normal oxygen level we breathe at an intensity of between 60-90% of your maximum heart rate depending on your level of acclimatisation. Training at these levels is necessary to make the body work harder so that it stimulates the changes described above. Interval training can also be done at an oxygen level as low as 75% during the interval and allowing this to increase as high as 90% in the recovery interval.

Do I have to altitude train all the time to keep my fitness?

The physiological changes which occur after at least 4 weeks of regular altitude training that increase your performance or fitness level last for about 2-3 weeks after you stop altitude training. Your fitness levels can be maintained by incorporating some ongoing top-up sessions of 1-2 times per week.

How long before I become acclimatised to high altitude?

Apart from actually staying at a high altitude for a length of time, acclimatisation can be enhanced using a simulated altitude system and wearing an oxygen mask while you watch TV or listen to music. No exercise is required for this. Low oxygen air is breathed in for 5 minutes then the mask is removed for 5 minutes. This is done for one hour as often as daily to assist the body to acclimatise before you commence high altitude activities.