26 April-2 May 2013 #653

Live high, train low

Training at low altitude while sleeping at high altitude is a more effective in enhancing performance
Dhanvantari by Buddha Basnyat, MD

The Bolivian football team is not going to win the World Cup. At an altitude of around 4,000m, there just is not enough oxygen in La Paz, the capital, to train to full capacity no matter how good a player is. Perhaps if the World Cup was held in La Paz, it might be a different story. On a similar note, some people hope that our high altitude marathon runners will one day win Olympic gold medals in marathon. However, the probability is very low because training at altitudes above 3,000m where there is a severe shortage of oxygen is not very helpful for contestants.

As we ascend, the barometric pressure falls and as a result the oxygen in the atmosphere decreases. The barometric pressure at 5,800m is half of 760 mmHg, the sea level pressure. The amount of oxygen is always 21 per cent of the barometric pressure whether at sea level or the peak of Mount Everest.

Since even a fraction of a second makes the difference between winning or losing, countries spend billions every year to find the ‘optimal’ altitude which would improve athletes’ chances of bringing home the gold. Recent research suggests that training at low altitude (sea level) while sleeping at high altitude (about 2,000m) is most effective in enhancing performance.

This method known as ‘live high train low’ is so popular among coaches and management that players are made to sleep in customised tents that simulate a high altitude environment and train at sea level because obtaining adequate oxygen during preparation is vital.

The reason athletes tend to do better when sleeping in these moderate altitudes is because the body senses the hypoxia (low oxygen) and triggers the production of more haemoglobin which carries the all-important nutrient, oxygen, to all the tissues of the body. This increase in haemoglobin is in fact a natural form of blood doping.

For winning competitions at high altitude, it may be good to train above 3,000m, but if you want to stand on the winner’s podium, high altitude training is worthless. The ‘live high train low’ approach may be the best answer to breaking Olympic records.