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Message to the Sports Science community – are you kidding?

Altitude training?

I thought the old approach to altitude training was done and dusted but to my amazement, nations continue to invest in one of the most questionable sports performance “enhancement” methodologies in the business.

You can’t be serious!

Do a literature review on all the available research on altitude training and you know what you end up with………….

“Altitude training may help some athletes, in some situations, sometimes“.

Think about this. The research pretty much says “altitude training is hit and miss”.

In spite of the thousands of pages of journal articles, hundreds of books and thousands of conference papers presented on altitude training since the mid 1960s, the best the sports science community can tell us is “it might work with some athletes from time to time”– followed by the ubiquitous “but further research is needed”.

Look at the holes in the logic:

  1. The vast majority of papers of altitude training are physiology based. Athletes arrive at the altitude camp. They have a blood test. Three weeks later they have another blood test and all the usual suspects – red blood cells, oxygen transport mechanisms and blood buffering capacity all have measured changes – therefore everyone taps each other on the back, congratulates each other for the great job done and for another successful altitude camp. The assumption is bordering on stupid because…..it assumes that all performance is dependent on physiological adaptations.
  2. One of the basic principles of research is to control or allow for confounding variables. For some reason, this principle has been thrown out the window when it comes to altitude training. Look at a typical altitude training camp scenario:

Athlete A lives in his home town on one side of the nation. He trains hard in a squad of 30 athletes (with one coach), where he is the only national level athlete in the squad. He works part time in the local insurance company. He lives by himself and cooks, cleans and takes care of a small apartment. He gets a small amount of support from the government and uses the money for coaching fees and a weekly massage. Now let’s take him to altitude…………………..

  • He is working with the best athletes and coaches in the country every day – (the “camp” effect”)
  • There is a 1-3 coach athlete ratio.
  • He does not have to work.
  • The national team nutritionist manages all meals.
  • He gets daily sports massage and recovery support.
  • He has access to the national team sports psychologist.
  • He gets additional quality coaching one on one from the national coach.
  • He gets intense technical and tactical training from the national team biomechanics staff.
  • AND……….he gets some nice adaptations in his blood and muscle biochemistry.

Two weeks later at national championships the athlete improves his personal best time by 0.3 of a second and the team physiologist yells – “See I told you altitude training works. His buffering capacity was enhanced by 16% and his red cell markers were significantly improved”.

You can’t be serious!

It’s a bit like taking sports supplements. Imagine you are working with an athlete who is training hard, getting plenty of rest and recovery and remains injury free for the entire preparation. AND in addition you introduce some creatine into their diet twice a week after gym training.

The athlete races and does a huge PB and you think,“hey -that creatine is great stuff!”.

All the altitude exposure in the world does not make up for inconsistent training, a compromised preparation due to injury or a poor attitude to completing training to the athlete’s full potential any more than taking creatine makes up for a lousy gym program.

3. A lot of the basic stuff is still being debated by the sports science community:

  • how high to go?
  • how much volume?
  • what sort of intensity?
  • how many sessions? 
  • do we need changes in diet and supplementation?
  • how long to stay at altitude?
  • what is the right type of preparation / background training to do (volume, intensity, frequency) in the weeks leading up to training at altitude?
  • how long prior to competition should we do altitude training?
  • how long before the competition should we come down?
  • And the big one……no one has demonstrated conclusively that it works for athletes competing at sea level.

C’mon – after 40 years studying this stuff – is this the best we can do?

In tough economic times, where it is difficult to find money to invest in the preparation and performance of elite athletes, why do we persist in spending so much money on something, that after 40 years of research, still has more holes in it than the proverbial sieve?

Surely someone will start looking at multiple performance factors in altitude research and look at the physical, mental, technical, tactical and emotional changes in athletes during exposure to altitude – including the impact of the training environment on the attitude of the athlete to training and performance.

To borrow a term from the Thredbo High Altitude Training Centre in Australia…..Altitude with Attitude!

Summary:

  • Altitude training may or may not work – but let’s be open minded about what’s working and not working.
  • Performance is physical…..but it is also mental, emotional, tactical, strategic, cultural. It is effected by team dynamics, personal life stresses, diet, coaching dynamics, equipment, facilities, attitude, values, recovery, financial strains……..AND of course blood biochemistry. Let’s stop making outlandish claims about altitude being the solution to all sporting problems and present a balanced approach to the issue.
  • Teams, coaches, athletes and national programs should consider the TOTAL athlete – and pursue altitude training as part of an integrated approach to optimal performance enhancement. It is not a magic pill – it is one small component of an intelligently designed, managed and implemented high performance program.

Wayne Goldsmith

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