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If you reside at sea level and are forced to compete at altitude, you should undergo at least some short-term altitude acclimatization. However, certain absolutes exist about competing at altitude, and these should be understood by all sea-level athletes who, by choice or necessity, must compete at altitude.

Performance at altitudes greater than 1,000 m (3,281 feet) is always inferior to sea-level performance in all races lasting more than 2 minutes. In contrast, performance in shorter races is enhanced by altitude, and the majority of the men’s world records in running events of 400 m or shorter have been set at altitude (see Exercises 11.8).

We don’t know why performance is impaired in races lasting longer than 2 minutes. One theory is that the major portion of energy utilized during such races comes from oxygen-dependent pathways (see Exercises 2.1). As the oxygen content of the air decreases with increasing altitude, so the maximum oxygen-transport capacity (V02max) falls, resulting in a reduced ability for energy production by oxygen-dependent pathways. I believe that the oxygen deficit either acts directly to impair muscle contractility or causes the athlete’s blood lactate levels to rise more rapidly and to reach limiting steady-state levels at a lower running speed than occurs at sea level. Runners who try to run at the same speeds at altitude as

The effect of different altitudes (1,000 m to 2,500 m above sea level) on running performance.

At sea level may become excessively short of breath because their blood lactate levels, which indirectly stimulate breathing, are higher than usual. Interestingly, residence and training at medium altitude do not alter the detrimental effect of increasing altitude on V02max; neither do they increase V02max at sea level (Tucker et al, 1984). The extent to which performance is reduced in races of different durations at different altitudes is shown in Exercises 9.1.

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Performance in the sprint events from 100 to 400 m is improved because air resistance is reduced at altitude (see Exercises 11.8). In addition, these events are not affected by the body’s reduced capacity for oxygen transport, because they rely on energy produced mainly by oxygen-independent pathways (see Exercises 3.11). The 800-m race appears to be the race in which the benefits of the reduced air resistance exactly match the detrimental effects of the reduced oxygen-transport capacity. Thus, at the 1968 Olympics the time in the 800-m race equaled the world record, whereas times in all the shorter sprints were improvements on the existing world records (see Exercises 11.8).

The second absolute of altitude competition is that sea-level athletes are always at a disadvantage when competing at altitude against altitude residents in events lasting longer than 2 minutes. This is because the sea-level athlete suffers a dramatic fall in work performance and in V02max immediately upon arriving at altitude, and this reduction corrects only slowly. Thus, V02max may fall as much as 15% on the second day after the athlete arrives at altitude of 2,200 m above sea level. Over the next few weeks, V02max gradually improves to return to a value, at altitude, 10% below the sea-level V02max (Dill, 1968). The practical implications of this are that the sea-level athlete who must compete at altitude should compete either immediately upon arriving at altitude or not until 3 or more weeks after arriving at altitude. The worst time to compete at altitude is within 3 to 6 days after first arriving at that altitude.

In reality, however, the best way to acclimatize to altitude is to live at altitude 22 hours a day and to travel to sea level for training sessions. The benefits are that the body acclimatizes to altitude by living there, not by exercising there. Indeed the problem with training at altitude is that because of the reduced oxygen content in the air, the athlete is never able to train quite as fast as he or she would at sea level. Thus, when training at altitude, the athlete’s racing fitness for sea-level competition falls slightly, despite an enhanced ability to perform at altitude. By training at sea level and living at altitude, the athlete adapts to altitude without losing sea-level racing edge, thus enjoying the best of both worlds.

Incidentally, the same argument explains why training at altitude does not improve sea-level performance, at least in the shorter track and distance races in which “leg speed” is essential: It is not possible to train sufficiently fast at altitude. On the other hand, altitude training could conceivably enhance performance in ultramarathon races, which are run at much slower speeds (approximately 16 km/hr). The good athlete who trains at altitude will have no difficulty running faster than 16 km/hr in training and therefore will retain sufficient leg

Speed for ultramarathon races. Yet that athlete will always be running at a higher percentage of V02max, at higher blood lactate levels, and therefore harder than he or she would if training at the same speed at sea-level.

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