Finding the best altitude for athletic training

said Dr. Benjamin Levine, Professor of Internal Medicine at UT Southwestern Medical Center and senior author of the paper published in the December edition of the Journal of Applied Physiology
Dr. Benjamin Levine, Professor of Internal Medicine 

Athletes and researchers have long known that living at high altitudes can potentially improve athletic performance. New findings now suggest that there is an ideal elevation for living – between 2,000 and 2,500 meters – that can enhance sea-level performance in competitive athletes.

“These data suggest that when completing an altitude training camp, there is an optimal living altitude for producing improvements in sea level performance,” said Dr. Benjamin Levine, Professor of Internal Medicine at UT Southwestern Medical Center and senior author of the paper published in the December edition of the Journal of Applied Physiology.

For the athlete engaged in altitude training, the identification of an optimal living altitude holds tremendous practical application for elite competitions like the Olympics. Many competitive endurance athletes subscribe to the “Live High – Train Low” training regimen, in which they live at moderate altitudes and do their easiest workouts there, saving more intense training for sea level. Researchers led by Dr. Levine, also the Director of the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine, a joint venture between UT Southwestern and Texas Health Resources, sought to determine the optimal living altitude for sea level performance enhancement.

In the new study, “Defining the ‘Dose’ of Altitude Training: How High to Live for Optimal Sea Level Performance Enhancement,” 48 collegiate runners from around the country trained in Dallas. For one month, the athletes underwent testing and training at sea level, and then were sent to four different altitude training camps at distinct elevations in the mountains surrounding Salt Lake City, Utah, where they lived and trained for another month.

Prior to ascending to higher altitudes in Utah, study participants underwent baseline hematological, metabolic, and performance measures at, or near sea level, in Dallas for four weeks. Researchers, including Dr. James Stray-Gunderson of the USA Ski and Snowboard Association, along with first author Dr. Robert F. Chapman of Indiana University, who is also Director of Sports Science for USA Track and Field, measured the athletes’ red blood cell volume. Researchers also measured the concentration of a hormone called EPO that stimulates red blood cell production at multiple different altitudes in an altitude chamber. Researchers then assessed the athletes’ VO2max, a measure of aerobic fitness based on the rate at which the body uses oxygen during exercise. Lastly, researchers timed the athletes as they ran 3,000 meters at their fastest pace.

Once in Utah, the athletes were divided into four groups and sent to live in distinct mountain training camps, each with a different altitude. Every day, the athletes would meet at a common site to train, regardless of what mountain training camp they resided in.

After four weeks, the athletes returned to Dallas and ran another timed 3,000 meters. Performance time significantly improved in the two groups living at the middle two altitudes – 2,085 meters and 2,454 meters – but not groups living at 1,780 meters and 2,800 meters.

The investigation’s findings come at an auspicious time, as the world’s best athletes descend upon Sochi, Russia, for the 22nd Winter Olympiad. The Winter Olympics are unique in that many competitive events take place in a high-altitude environment, which can have a substantial effect on performance outcomes.

The decline in oxygen delivery to working muscles decreases maximal oxygen uptake, negatively affecting performance in endurance events, such as cross-country skiing and the biathlon, Dr. Levine noted. Furthermore, the reduction in air resistance at altitude can dramatically affect sports involving high velocities and technical skill components, such as ski jumping, speed skating, figure skating, and ice hockey.

“For athletes competing at the Sochi games, a number of strategies may be useful, depending on the athlete’s altitude of residence and ultimate competition altitude,” said Dr. Levine.

And while many of the Sochi events take place at sea level, Dr. Levine and his team’s work extends beyond the games of the 22nd Olympiad to other high-profile sporting events taking place at sea level.

Prior to the recent findings, most athletes and their coaches mistakenly assumed that since a little altitude is good, then more altitude is better.

“Athletes can actually live too high, and there may be negative athletic implications to living at higher altitudes that can limit performance gains for Olympic athletes,” Dr. Levine said.

For athletic competitions at sea level, living at altitudes between 2,000 meters and 2,500 meters for altitude training, and performing all high-intensity training sessions as low as possible is the best approach to improve performance, he said.

“An athlete can live too high, or too low, and not see performance gains from altitude training,” Dr. Levine said.

In addition to Drs. Levine, Stray-Gundersen, and Chapman, the study team also included investigators from the Norwegian University of Sport and Physical Education and Qinghai University in China, along with Dr. Matthew P. Harber and Dr. Sarah Witkowski of the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine.

Lisa Warshaw

Dr. Levine holds the Distinguished Professorship in Exercise Sciences.