Joe Vigil knows a thing or two about altitude training. He’s a doctor, which is your first clue, and he was the USA Olympic Team running coach for the 2008 games, coaching the likes of Deena Kastor and Meb Keflezighi, bronze and silver medalists respectively at the Athens games. So when he talks about altitude, you listen;
“The record has shown that since 1968, 95% of all Olympic and World Championship medals from the 800 through the Marathon were won by athletes who lived or trained at altitude. It can therefore be concluded that altitude training is necessary for success in endurance events.”
However the altitude training landscape has shifted monumentally since 1968. At that time, it was commonplace for athletes to head to the mountains for long periods of time to live and train. While effective, it wasn’t a perfect solution, often bringing with it cost, extended time away from family, friends & training partners, and a negative influence on training quality. It was this final point that two scientists in Dallas, Texas, were keen to resolve.
Ben Levine and Jim Stray-Gunderson knew that when you train in the mountains, the amount of oxygen in your blood is significantly reduced. They noticed that for every 100 m above 1500 m an athlete trains, their maximal aerobic power (think FPT, half marathon pace etc) drops by 1%, and this was even greater for well trained athletes and who were also more vulnerable to lower altitudes. By their estimation, this meant that athletes’ ability to perform high intensity work while on altitude training camps would be impaired, and if an athlete were to spend too long at altitude then their ability to access high intensities on race day might be reduced. They set out to investigate whether sleeping altitude but training closer to sea level would allow an athlete to gain the performance benefits of altitude acclimation without the training drawbacks of traditional altitude training. The answer was a resounding yes, the methodology became known as live high train low (LHTL) and we haven’t looked back since.
That is until earlier this year, when friend of The Altitude Centre Dr. Olivier Girard sat down with Levine and a few of their friends to look back at the last 25 years of LHTL application and research to see what we’ve learnt, and what we still need to learn. Here were their findings:
If you put a group of athletes through an identical LHTL program, not all will see the same change in physiology or performance. The authors suggest that everyone will adapt to altitude, but there might be ‘slow’ or ‘fast’ responders, and while it’s tricky to predict who will fall into each group, it’s on us as sport scientists to track the athletes’ rate of adaptation to optimise performance.
Lesson 7: LHTL Strategies Can Be Successfully Implemented to Increase Red Cell Mass and Maximal Aerobic Power With Both Natural and Artificial Altitude
The original LHTL study saw athletes live at 2500 m and train in Deer Valley, Utah, dropping down to Salt Lake City to train. There are very few places in the world that allow such terrestrial LHTL (often when you are in the mountains, you are in the mountains!). To get around this, and allow accessibility to LHTL for a greater range of athletes who would otherwise not be able to go on altitude training camps, we have developed altitude tents, that allow us to simulate altitude as someone sleeps in their normal bed, at home! The punchline is that this is still highly effective, and byremoving financial, time and logistical challenges of altitude sojourns, it is often considered a gold standard for altitude training. You must maximise time spent in the altitude tent to see the greatest results, but when they come, they are highly impactful on performance.
Lesson 9: Despite Endurance Athletes (eg, Swimmers, Runners, Cyclists) Being the Most Common Users of Altitude Training Approaches, LHTL Is Now Increasingly Popular in a Wider Range of Athletes (eg, Team and Racket Sports)
There is often a huge gap between the research and applied practice; a gap that the authors have tried to fill. In their eyes, these lessons serve as important points of consideration for anyone looking to optimise an altitude training camp and get the most from their LHTL. To us as practitioners, it is imperative we take the learnings from the last 25 years and continue to refine them as we push performance to ever higher levels, and help athletes of all kinds achieve their Everest.