What is "high altitude training"?
The definition goes as follows: “Altitude training is using an undersupply of oxygen (hypoxia) towards your body to stimulate a better performance”.
It can be used for mountaineers who would like to get used to the high altitude that they will encounter on their next trip. With an altitude tent, you can train up to 3.400 meters at home while sleeping in your tent and even up to 6.500 meters by using a mask.
This can also be used to boost performance for people who want to perform better during sports competitions. This works well for as well top athletes and recreational runners, cyclers, swimmers, etc.
For sport performance goals you usually sleep at an altitude around 3.000 meters, higher doesn’t really impact your endurance performance anymore when it is performed at ground level. (e.g. you want to run a faster marathon)
In this article, we try to answer the most asked questions we receive about high altitude training. Don't hesitate to reach out if you have additional questions about this topic in regard to using high altitude tents as preparation for mountaineering adventures.
When should you start your altitude training? And, when will you notice its effect?
Whether you intend to climb Mont Blanc, Kilimanjaro, or even Mount Everest, travelling at high altitudes should always be carefully planned and prepared. Both your physical fitness and equipment will play a major role in your success. So, to prepare your body for the special conditions at high altitudes, it definitely helps when you follow an altitude training program before heading out on your next mountain adventure.
From a height of 2,000 m in altitude, the “thinner air“ begins to have an effect on the body. Here, both sensitive and previously ill people will already experience their first symptoms of altitude sickness. Having a headache or feeling sick are the first symptoms that will tell your body to travel back to a lower altitude. But feeling a bit off doesn’t necessarily mean that you will develop acute mountain sickness (AMS).
Suffering from AMS depends on several factors, such as: How physically fit you are and how good your general health is. In addition, some individuals may acclimatize faster than others with the same physical fitness level, simply based on their genetics.
While you ascend a mountain or hike at high altitudes, you should also take both the speed of the ascent and possible additional acclimatization days into consideration.
Regardless of the altitude, the oxygen concentration in the air is at 20.9% all over the world. However, the atmospheric pressure decreases with increasing altitude and the partial pressure of oxygen simultaneously decreases. As a result, this effect leads to an undersupply of oxygen to the body (hypoxia).
How does pre-acclimatization with a high altitude tent work?
During your sleep, you expose yourself to higher altitudes prior to your mountain adventure or expedition. Essentially, the aim is to replicate the hypoxic conditions experienced at altitude before stepping foot on the mountain. We do this via hypoxic generators, which remove oxygen from the air you breathe either in a hypoxic chamber, in a tent, or via a face mask. Exposure to low oxygen environments will stimulate compensatory physiological adaptations which improve our ability to transport oxygen around the body and that will ultimately prepare the body for the hypoxic conditions at high-altitude, leading to a better and more comfortable experience on the mountain.
How to start your training in a high altitude tent?
Normally, you start sleeping at a higher altitude 4 to 5 weeks prior to your trip to the mountains. Usually we start at a height of 1.500 meters and increase the height based on the oxygen measurements when we wake up. We use a fingertip pulse oximeter to measure the oxygen saturation in our bloodstream (SpO2), you should aim for an SpO2 between 90% and 92% when you measure your oxygen saturation in the morning. At this level, your body will be calling for more red blood cells by generating EPO, the blood growth factor hormone. If the measurement is higher than 92% you can increase the height and you should lower it again when you measured an oxygen saturation value lower than 90%.
How does altitude training work, and what are the effects?
Professional athletes also benefit from altitude training’s positive effects.
So, altitude training is perfectly suited for performance-oriented athletes who want to improve their endurance under controlled conditions. In case you didn’t know, altitude training has already been included in the training plans of endurance sports, long-distance running, triathlon, and cycling athletes. However, even ambitious mountaineers who would like to prepare for a high mountain ascent can improve their performance through altitude training.
How long does the effect of altitude training last?
The duration of both the training’s effects and the adaptation effects remain controversial in the field of science. The first few days after a longer stay at high altitudes involves a regeneration phase, which means that you should reduce both the number of trainings and the intensity. You may even notice a drop in your performance at first, so a short break can help you get back on your feet. Moreover, various studies have come to the conclusion that the effect of good altitude training lasts between three and five weeks and probably even longer. Plus, red blood cells (erythrocytes) only live in the body for a maximum of 120 days. As a result, the effects cannot last more than 4 months.
Can altitude training really improve your performance?
Journeying at high altitudes leads to an adaptation process in the body due to the reduced supply of oxygen. This includes a sensitization of the breathing activity, i.e. ventilation, just like when the body is stressed. In addition, the release of the body’s own hormone erythropoietin (EPO) is also stimulated. EPO is produced in the kidneys and takes care of the formation of new red blood cells in the bone marrow. At the same time, the body increases the amount of haemoglobin available. Haemoglobin binds oxygen and has a positive effect on endurance by increasing the oxygen transport capacity in the arterial blood.
Several studies have shown that physical exertion under hypoxia leads to changes at the muscular level, such as the increased enzyme activity of the energy metabolism. Increased muscular oxygen storage was also observed.
Is altitude training useful for recreational athletes?
A well-planned altitude training is definitely very useful for recreational athletes and hobby alpinists. But recreational runners or cyclists can also benefit from the training’s positive effects in their own sport performance.
So, it’s important to consolidate your own personal endurance performance and ensure that it’s at a good level beforehand. In other words, you should do sports, run and hill walk on a regular basis for a few years before considering an altitude training camp to improve your performance on your next marathon or triathlon.
A summary of altitude training?
In conclusion, altitude training can also be used to improve performance in popular sports under certain conditions.
For mountaineering at high altitudes in the Andes, Himalayas, or even on the 4,000 m peaks in the Alps, it makes a lot of sense to prepare yourself with an altitude tent at home. This way you will reduce the possible symptoms of acute mountain sickness or to possibly even eliminate them in advance.
Your training should be specific and strategic; a simple stay at high altitude is not enough to achieve meaningful adaptation effects. It should be combined with a tailor-made training plan that matches the goal you want to reach, the time you can allocate for it and your current running or cycling (or other sports) performance.
Good and proper acclimatization can make or break an expedition. We use altitude tents and high-altitude masks from our altitude training partner Altitude Dream to acclimatize before our trips above 4000 meters. It helps us to perform better, which leads to us enjoying the trip even more.
Discover our trips towards the mountains and join one of our upcoming mountain expeditions.