Live high, train low--that's the guide to faster footwork, according to a paper published this month in the Journal of Applied Physiology. The study found that runners can shave crucial seconds off their time if they live at high altitudes but train closer to sea level. The strategy could affect how world-class athletes prepare for big races.
At high altitudes, the body adapts to the thin air by generating additional red blood cells, which grab more oxygen from the air in the lungs. The added oxygen-carrying capacity is a potential boon for athletes, but attempts to train athletes at high altitudes have failed. The altitude often causes insomnia or loss of appetite, and because there simply isn't enough oxygen in the air, athletes can't use their muscles intensely enough. At low altitudes, oxygen is plentiful, but athletes lose their added blood cells.
Benjamin Levine and James Stray-Gundersen, physiologists at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, thought they could create the ultimate workout by mixing the advantages of intense training at low altitude with greater oxygen-carrying capacity from living at high altitude. To test the idea, they first timed 39 amateur competitive runners in a 5-kilometer race at sea level, then randomly divided the runners into three groups who trained separately for 4 weeks. One group lived and worked out at sea level, another lived and trained at 2500 meters, and the third lived at 2500 m but trained at 1200 m.
After the training, the researchers brought all the runners back to sea level and retimed them on the 5-km race. On average, runners in the high-high group and low-low group did not improve, but the high-low group sped up by an average of 13 seconds--equivalent to about a 100-yard gain in a race.
Levine says this is the first study to show any benefit from altitude conditioning, and coaches are taking notice. He says U.S. Olympic cyclists as well as Norwegian and Finnish skiers are all using a variation on the technique. George Brooks, an exercise physiologist at the University of California, Berkeley, says the researchers "are to be commended for this work"--the first study with enough people to give valid results.