This blog discusses current trends around altitude training and does not constitute medical or training advice. We recommend working with an experienced coach & consulting with your doctor before incorporating high-altitude training into your plan.


Altitude Training 101: The Case for Training Up High

Many great endurance athletes seek out opportunities to train – or even live – at altitude. Whether it's Bowerman Track Club visiting the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Eliud Kipchoge growing up in the mountains of Kenya, or PWR Lab hosting elite runners in Flagstaff, altitude seems to work for distance runners. This blog digs into the reasons why runners thrive up high.

Elite runners from USA, France, Ukraine are living together at the PWR Lab High-Performance House in Flagstaff

For decades we’ve heard about endurance athletes training at high altitude in hopes of improving their performance on race day, having some kind of competitive edge over other athletes, or aiming to set a new record at their distance. What is it about altitude training that enhances performance? How does it work? In short, stints at altitude (“intermittent hypoxic training”) add the stress of hypoxia (lack of oxygen) to the stress of training, forcing the body to transport and utilize oxygen more efficiently. When the athlete returns to sea level, they return with an enhanced ability to move oxygen to the muscles and thus work their body harder and perform to a new potential.

PHYSIOLOGICAL MECHANISMS

How Does It All Work?

A plethora of research has been conducted on the physiological mechanisms of altitude training. The scientific and athletic communities have been working together to understand what exactly happens when you introduce hypoxic stress to the body.

Living and training at altitude, where oxygen levels are lower, stimulates the production of the hormone erythropoietin in the liver and kidneys. This hormone stimulates erythropoiesis – the production of red blood cells in bone marrow. With this increased production of red blood cells, athletes typically see up to a 3% increase in Hemoglobin, the protein that transports oxygen to the skeletal muscle tissue. The increase in available oxygen allows muscle tissue to work harder for longer.

PWR Lab Ambassador & French pro Arsene Guillorel running in Flagstaff's Buffalo Park


RECOMMENDED DURATION

How Long Does It Take?

Many coaches and runners express the desire to spend at least 4 weeks at altitude in order to reap the benefits Research demonstrates that elite athletes may see an increase of Hemoglobin mass up to 1% per week for the first 3 weeks with this increase tapering off at about 6-8 weeks. Many elite runners spend about a month at altitude 1 to 3 times per year as part of their periodized training regimen. 

RECOMMENDED ALTITUDE

How High For Benefits?

Popular-destination mountain towns like Flagstaff and Boulder are well known for being surrounded by countless running routes and picturesque vistas. But the main attraction is the combination of  moderately high altitudes of 5,000-7,500 feet (1500-2400m) above sea level and easy access to lower altitude training. Most research has demonstrated a sweet spot of 1400-2400m above sea level for reaping the benefits of altitude training without seeing a decrease in performance due to training at lower overall intensity (because of the lack of available oxygen).

The biggest performance-related concern with training at high altitude is the neuromuscular adaptation. Because runners cannot utilize enough oxygen at high altitude to sustain “race pace” for as long as at sea level, they must be wary of neuromuscular adaptations. Many runners choose to account for this by completing their speed/tempo work at nearby lower elevation areas to ensure they are able to run at their goal race pace.

A similar example to this can be seen in baseball players. Before stepping up to the plate, players use weighted bats to take their practice swings, which seems like it would translate to faster swing speed with a lighter bat. Interestingly, the opposite is true. When swinging the weighted bats, they are practicing slower swings, and enforcing that movement pattern. In order to practice faster swings, baseball players need lighter bats. The same is true for running. Runners need to practice running fast in order to get faster!

PWR Lab High-Performance House athletes running above 7,000 feet in Flagstaff
(from left: Valeriia Zinenko, Liv Westphal, Heather Kampf, Breanna Sieracki)

PWR Lab High-Performance House

PWR Lab is housing elite runners from across the globe at a two-month (March & April) rental home in Flagstaff, Arizona. These runners, all from different backgrounds and specializing in distances spanning 800m to 10,000m, are living together under the same roof in the High-Performance House, at no expense, in pursuit of the performance gains hypoxic training offers. Each is connected to their training data via PWR Lab and monitoring their injury risk while adjusting to altitude and preparing for the outdoor track season.

"At PWR Lab, we are first and foremost about athlete health and development. Our goal with this initiative is to support elite runners pursuing their Olympic dreams. We recognize what it takes to excel on the World and Olympic stages and have created an environment that is conducive to training and recovering at an elite level. We hope by eliminating the financial burden associated with altitude training and providing the best injury prevention resources, we can help set these athletes up for success on race day."
–PWR Lab Co-founder & Director of Athlete Development Dr. Jeff Moreno
Known for having a world-class and welcoming running community, Flagstaff was the natural choice for the High-Performance House. Athletes will have the chance to live, train, and recover at 7,000 feet, and will have easy access to lower elevations in nearby towns such as Camp Verde (3,100ft/1,000m), Cottonwood (3,300ft/1,100m), and Sedona (4,350ft/1,330m), where they can push the pace and stay sharp at higher speeds.

In addition to sponsored accommodation and training data support via PWR Lab, these runners are benefitting from access to physiotherapists and strength training support. All this, and other training support (in the form of logistics, facility access, services, products, perks) have been made possible with the help of PWR Lab's many local friends & advocates, as well as event aids & sponsors such as Brian Schmitz of DeRosa Physical Therapy, Woodway Treadmills, Method Seven Specialty Optics, Bear Mattress, Skratch Labs, and Rapid Reboot.

Megan Eckert
About Megan Eckert

Megan is a psychology student at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and an up-and-coming distance runner. She won her age group in her debut race (a hilly 50k trail run), and proceeded to place as the second woman overall in her next race (a 12-hour race through the slush and mud). Megan has a passion for running, hiking, surfing, and nature in general, as well as a growing curiosity for data