How Can Altitude Training Enhance the Aerobic Capacity of Long-Distance Runners?

Altitude training has been popular among long-distance runners for many decades. The belief is that training at higher altitudes, where the air is thinner, can enhance a runner’s aerobic capacity and overall performance when they return to sea level. But how does this work? What is the science behind altitude training and how can it be applied effectively?

Understanding the Basics of Altitude Training

Before delving into how altitude training can enhance the aerobic capacity of long-distance runners, it’s essential to understand the basics of this technique. Altitude training is the practice of training in, living in, or both, at a higher altitude than the athlete’s home or competition altitude for a certain period.

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In places of high altitude, the air is ‘thinner’, that is, there is less oxygen per unit of air volume. This makes it harder for the body to get the oxygen it needs, forcing it to adapt and become more efficient in using the available oxygen. The effects of these adaptations can then potentially boost performance when the athlete returns to lower altitudes.

The science of altitude training revolves around the body’s response to hypoxia, or oxygen deficiency. When the body senses hypoxia, it initiates a number of adaptive responses aimed at improving oxygen delivery to tissues and the efficiency of oxygen usage. These adaptations are the key to the potential performance benefits of altitude training.

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How Altitude Training Influences Aerobic Capacity

The main purpose of altitude training is to increase the body’s production of red blood cells, which are responsible for carrying oxygen from the lungs to the muscles. This process is governed by the hormone erythropoietin (EPO), whose production is stimulated by hypoxia.

When you train at high altitudes, your body produces more EPO to compensate for the decrease in available oxygen. This leads to an increase in the number of red blood cells, improving your body’s ability to transport oxygen. When you return to sea level, where the oxygen concentration is higher, your enhanced red blood cell count allows your body to deliver oxygen to your muscles more efficiently. This, in turn, can enhance your aerobic capacity and endurance performance.

Implementing Altitude Training: Live High, Train Low Strategy

One of the most effective strategies for altitude training is the "live high, train low" approach. This involves living at a high altitude to induce the physiological adaptations to hypoxia, but training at a lower altitude where more oxygen is available. The concept here is that by living high, you can stimulate the production of EPO and increase your red blood cell count, but by training low, you can maintain the intensity of your workouts without the inhibitory effects of hypoxia.

This strategy is popular among elite long-distance runners, as it allows them to get the benefits of altitude training without compromising their training intensity. It does, however, require access to areas of varying altitudes, making it less practical for some athletes.

Are There Any Risks or Limitations?

While altitude training offers potential benefits, it’s not without risks and limitations. One of the main risks is the development of altitude sickness, which can cause symptoms like headaches, nausea, and dizziness. This can be mitigated by a gradual ascent to altitude and appropriate acclimatization.

Moreover, not all athletes respond the same way to altitude training. Some may experience a significant increase in red blood cell count and performance, while others may see little to no improvement. Individual response to altitude can be influenced by a variety of factors, including genetics.

Furthermore, the benefits of altitude training appear to be transient, meaning they diminish over time after the athlete returns to sea level. Therefore, timing is key when using altitude training in preparation for a competition.

In conclusion, while altitude training can be a valuable tool for enhancing the aerobic capacity of long-distance runners, it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. It requires careful planning, individualization, and timing to be effective, and it’s not without potential risks and limitations.

Delving Deeper into the Science of Altitude Training

Now that we have a basic understanding of altitude training, let’s explore the science behind it in more depth. As mentioned, one of the key body responses to hypoxia is the increased production of erythropoietin (EPO), a hormone that stimulates the formation of red blood cells, which are crucial for oxygen distribution to the body tissues. This response is primarily controlled by the hypoxia-inducible factor (HIF) pathway, which is activated when the body senses low oxygen levels.

Under hypoxic conditions, the body conserves oxygen by shunting it towards vital organs like the brain and heart; simultaneously, it boosts the production of EPO. EPO in turn stimulates the bone marrow to produce more red blood cells. These cells, packed with oxygen-carrying hemoglobin, are then released into circulation. The result is an increased oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood, which allows the body to perform better under conditions of oxygen scarcity.

Additionally, training at high altitudes can instigate other physiological adaptations beneficial for long-distance runners, such as increased capillarization, enhanced mitochondrial efficiency, and improved buffering of lactic acid.

Individual Response to Altitude Training

It’s worth noting that individuals respond differently to altitude training. The degree of erythropoietic response, as well as the onset of altitude sickness, can differ greatly among individuals. Genetic factors, such as the specific variants of the EPAS1 gene (associated with HIF pathway) an individual has, can influence how effectively their body adapts to hypoxia.

Moreover, the benefits of altitude training appear to be transient and diminish after athletes return to sea level. Hence, the timing of altitude training plays a crucial role in maximizing its benefits. Athletes usually need to stay at high altitude for at least three weeks before competition to see significant benefits. However, these benefits start to wane about two weeks after returning to sea level.

Finally, altitude training isn’t a magic bullet. It should be part of a broader training strategy that includes appropriate nutrition, recovery, and conditioning work.


Altitude training is a powerful tool that can enhance the aerobic capacity of long-distance runners. It works by stimulating the body’s production of red blood cells, thus improving oxygen transport, and prompting other beneficial physiological adaptations. However, it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. Individual genetics can influence the response to altitude training, and its benefits are transient, making timing crucial. Additionally, altitude training carries potential risks, such as altitude sickness, and should only be undertaken with proper planning, supervision, and medical support. As with any training strategy, it should be integrated into a comprehensive plan that supports all aspects of athletic performance.