Altitude training camps are extremely popular with the vast majority of top tier athletes, who do at least one annual trek to unlock their top athletic performances.
This will often be when they’re building up to a specific event, or to try and get the jump on their competitors. There is also a ramp up in altitude camps leading up to the Olympic Games.
The altitude training camp season begins at pre-season, and is revisited several times throughout the season for almost all sports. Professional cycling teams seem to be the early adopters. In fact, this year we’ve seen teams not just opt for training in the high country, but also at an altitude hotel in Spain.
Iñigo San Millán, who is Tadej Pogačar's head of performance, is a big believer in altitude camps. He believes that athletes and coaches underestimate the role that pairing the altitude stress with training load is crucial for getting the most from it.
Iñigo has noted that your haemoglobin levels start to drop off anywhere from 3-4 weeks after returning from an altitude camp, which would be a great time to supplement with a home-based altitude system.
Iñigo believes the sooner the better to start doing altitude camps. “There must be some form of ‘memory’ from within your body for the mechanisms behind altitude adaptation that the body has developed,” he says. “HIF-1 [Hypoxia-inducible factor 1-alpha] is a transcription factor involved in multiple mechanisms responsible for altitude adaptation and response. It is quite possible that HIF-1 responses are better in people who have been previously living at altitude.”
Eliud Kipchoge trains in Kaptagat in the Kenyan highlands, at an altitude of 2500m above sea level. According to the marathon handbook, his work out over the course of 5-6 days is typically:
• one long run (30-40km)
• several slow runs
• two core sessions
• one strength and conditioning daily
• and one or two fartlek sessions (speed session on track).
During winter, Farah will stay at the same altitude area as Eliud Kipchoge, Lornah Kiplagat's High Altitude Training Center in Iten in Kenya. The small town atop the Rift Valley, about a five-hour drive northwest of Nairobi, is one of the key training hubs in Kenya. When at sea level Mo Farah has been quoted saying, "Whenever I’m somewhere that’s at sea level, like here in London, I’ll sleep in a high-altitude tent.”
The English rugby team went to Denver, Colorado (which sits at 1,700m) for two years in their build up for the Rugby World Cup competition.
Maintaining more efficient blood cells is vital to sustaining high performance throughout the season. We typically recommend people spend a minimum of 1 night at altitude throughout the season. We also believe three nights at altitude in a maintenance phase of sleeping at altitude is a great idea. This means you can pair your recovery to the altitude you sleep at. For example, if you felt too fatigued to train you might start night one at a moderate altitude of 1,500m, and then in the morning you might observe that your heart rate during the night was more than 5% over your resting heart rate. If that were the case we would suggest you had another night at a moderate altitude, until your heart rate whilst sleeping is closer to the normal resting heart rate.
I was never a great fan of heading away for an altitude camp during my bike racing career. I felt as if I had spent enough time away from home and too much time in hotels over the season, so the last thing I wanted to do was to pack my bags again.
When racing competitively I found that an average of 8 to 9 hours per day sleeping at 2,500m kept my blood oxygen levels within a healthy range, but importantly not impairing sleep quality. This meant I could train effectively at sea level and still adapt to the training load, but yielding a 5 to 6% increase in V02 max over a 3 month period. This gave me a competitive edge which made a big difference in achieving race goals and results.
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