Altitude training - lack of oxygen as a training parameter

Have you ever thought about an altitude training camp in connection with training camps? Basically one hopes for an altitude training camp an improvement in endurance performance in the lowlands. But does it really work?

As soon as you, as an endurance athlete, are more ambitious in your sport and during the summer months many competitions are on the program, you should periodize your training. The division of the calendar year into regeneration, preparation and competition phases is of great importance for your competition success. During the preparatory phases, training camps naturally offer themselves: not having to work and thus focusing fully on your training, a mild climate and the exercise of your sport in a training group can once again lead to an important improvement in your performance. Have you ever thought about an altitude training camp in this context? What sounds so enticing, but must first be critically scrutinized.

Basically one hopes for an altitude training camp an improvement in endurance performance in the lowlands. For this purpose, the erythropoiesis is made responsible as a result of the Höhenakklimatisation. For more than 45 years, sport medical research has been dealing with performance and training under high altitude conditions. Initiation of the first investigations was then the 1968 Olympic Games in the 2300 m high Mexico City. To date, the question of the optimal duration of a hypoxia exposure in order to achieve relevant acclimatization reactions for an increase in performance has not yet been clarified. There also seems to be individual differences in terms of acclimatization responses, reduction of power during acute stay in altitude, and improvement in performance after a high altitude athlete. (1)

Special feature height

At altitude your organism is exposed to different living conditions than at sea level (0 m). Physical quantities such as air pressure, oxygen partial pressure and air density change with increasing altitude. Of course, these changes result in appropriate adjustments of body functions. As altitude increases, air pressure and air density decrease. Compared to the sea level, where the air pressure is 760 mmHg, it amounts to only 560 mmHg at 2500 m. The air gets really thinner. There are fewer gas particles on the same area. This means that with increasing altitude, the absolute amount of oxygen also steadily decreases (reduced oxygen partial pressure). As a result, the arterial oxygen partial pressure also decreases. (2)

Acute hypoxia

Acute height adjustments are understood as occurring within the first 48 hours of altitude exposure. The athlete is less oxygen available with the same amount of inhaled air than in the lowlands. This means that the aerobic performance is reduced under acute altitude exposure, but not the anaerobic one. At height, therefore, competition performance will only be reduced in sports with a load duration greater than 2 minutes. To counteract the lack of oxygen, the human organism has a number of effective adaptation mechanisms. These concern especially respiratory, cardiovascular and cellular function. The generic term for this is the altitude acclimatization. The increase in breathed volume of air per minute, the minute volume, is the most important and fastest adjustment for acute height exposure. In addition to this change, the heart rate is also elevated in height at rest and under submaximal loading. Due to the acute height exposure, the blood plasma volume decreases in the first 1-2 days, the hematocrit value and the hemoglobin value increase without there being an absolute increase of the red blood cells. As a result, more oxygen can be transported to the musculature with each heartbeat. (3)

Chronic adaptation erythropoiesis

One of the main reasons for athletes from endurance sports to stay at altitude is a chronic adaptation of their organism. The lack of oxygen leads to increased production of the body's own hormone erythropoietin (EPO). The increase in EPO is dependent on height and shows large individual differences. The increase in EPO stimulates the production of red blood cells in the spinal cord. This increased production of new red blood cells leads to an increase in hemoglobin mass and volume of erythrocytes. As a result, improved oxygen transport to the musculature helps to maximize submaximal endurance performance and enhance endurance endurance in the lowlands. It is assumed that successful erythropoiesis stimulation requires at least a 3-week permanent stay at a height of at least 2500 m. (3)

Living and exercising at height and other concepts

An altitude training camp usually takes place only at moderate altitudes and not over 3000 m altitude. Classical altitude training aims to increase performance by increasing oxygen transport capacity, increasing muscle oxidative capacity, and possibly also buffering capacity. It is called "live high - train high" concept. That is, both stay and training take place at altitude. The results of controlled scientific studies on this method are sometimes contradictory. Interesting to mention a study in which speed programs at high altitude despite higher training intensity higher lactate concentrations were achieved than in the lowlands. This increase in training intensity, which is difficult to achieve in the lowlands, could lead to improved performance after altitude training. (1)

Live low - train high

This type of altitude training was originally done in preparation for a classic altitude training. It was assumed that this could promote altitude acclimatization. However, there are no scientific publications on this method. As mentioned earlier, it is conceivable that hypoxia will enable athletes to increase their exercise intensities and thus influence muscle metabolism. (1) However, a practicable method for recreational athletes is not.

Live high - train low

Advantage of this method is that difficulties in the control of training at altitude can be avoided. However, in order to use the acclimatization reactions, the athletes stay in hypoxia during their free time and perform their training as usual in the lowlands. Studies show that athletes choosing this concept improved their VO2max, their red blood cell mass and their 5000-meter time in the lowlands. Those who spent their time completely up in the air could improve their VO2max and RBC mass but not their 5000m time. A lowland control group showed no improvement.

Since this form of the high-altitude camp is logistically only in a few places in the world to make it possible, for example, in Finland so-called "height houses" built. Here, athletes can live in simulated heights of 2500-3000 m and spend time training in the lowlands. In Germany, there are now height tents for home use to buy. Unfortunately, the study results are also uneven for this variant.

Altitude training - unspecified details

Despite years of research, some questions remain unanswered: how many hours a day, and for how many weeks, does an athlete need to stay in hypoxia during his non-training period to significantly stimulate erythropoiesis and increase the mass of erythrocytes? A statement about the effectiveness of an altitude training camp to improve performance compared to training at sea level can not be answered precisely at the given time.

Contrary to the widespread altitude training euphoria in sports practice, the effect must first be examined further from a sports-physiological point of view. In particular, the question of responders and non-responders may provide further important information on the possible effect. The fact is that the load capacity is lower in altitude compared to the sea level, which means that the same load under height conditions results in higher lactate levels in the body. This means that you have to train at altitude with lower intensities than under sea conditions. This, in turn, suggests that in an altitude training camp, only basic endurance should be targeted. (Also read: Planning an altitude training camp)

Height tents and hypoxia training

Meanwhile, commercial providers have also discovered the subject of altitude training for themselves and appropriate concepts have been developed for both competitive athletes, recreational athletes and willing hobby athletes, where training in a height chamber is possible. However, recreational athletes and hobby athletes should first try using conventional methods to develop their fitness before venturing into the high-altitude training experiment.

Given the contradictory study situation, the general euphoria in sports practice should first be replaced by organized skepticism. First of all, stimulate your training content and then consider whether you would like to try such an experiment - not very cheap. However, if you are planning a mountain trip or a trip to extreme altitudes in the foreseeable future, you should definitely include a hypoxia workout in your preparation, in order to adapt to the height in advance!

Hanna Sandig


1. German Journal of Sports Medicine (2000), Vol. 51 (12), p. 418-423

2. Marées (2002): Sports Physiology. Cologne: Sport and Buch Strauss

3. Villiger & Vogt (2005): An altitude training manual for the practice. Bern: Swiss Olympic Association


Erythropoiesis - refers to the formation of erythrocytes (red blood cells) from stem cells of the hematopoietic spinal cord

Exposure to hypoxia - exposing the body to hypoxia, which refers to the body's deficiency of oxygen

Erythropoietin (EPO) - Glycoprotein hormone that controls the formation of erythrocytes from precursor cells in the bone marrow (erythropoiesis)

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