The effects of altitude on performance came to the forefront of athletics during the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, when the performance of endurance athletes dramatically dropped. Those athletes from higher altitude environments did not seem to suffer as much as others in the competition, where the stadium had an altitude of 2239 meters. This was the catalyst for research into the effects of altitude on performance.
The effects of altitude become a factor around 1,000 to 2,000 meters above sealevel (Wilmore, Costill & Kenney, 2008) with less than 500m being considered sea level. Moderate altitude levels range from 2,000 to 3000 meters and it is at this level that performance is significantly affected, with the higher ranges of altitude 3,000m plus showing severe effects health as well as on performance. Due to the air reducing pressure and being thinner at these higher altitudes, it can actually disrupt the sensory control of athletes and influence their balance and co-ordination. This decreased air resistance can play an advantage in sporting contexts such as ball-orientated sports such as football or American Football. Could this be why Peyton Manning, the QB of the Denver Broncos, who plays at 1732 meters above sea level broke the passing yards record in the NFL this season?
As altitude increases the percentage of oxygen in the air, actually remains constant at 21% regardless of the altitude a person is at. The physiological effects occur due to there being less oxygen particles in each breath a person takes (Smoliga, 2009). These conditions are known as Hypoxic and the low-pressure environment of high altitude is known as hypobaric (Smoliga, 2009). The main physiological advantage of training at higher altitudes is that it can cause an increased level of Erythropoietin (EPO). This triggers the bone marrow to produce more red blood cells, which therefor increase the amount of hemoglobin in the blood. This means that more that more oxygen molecules can be carried in the blood to the muscles in use (Smoliga, 2009). Now, there have been suggestions that due the similarities to blood doping, made famous from the Lance Armstrong scandal, that altitude training is a form of cheating. However, Wilber (2011) shows that it acceptable to be used by all athletes, due its natural occurrence in the environment and is just another variable to take into consideration when training for sport.
The ways in which altitude training can be used can vary. These include living high and training high (LH/TH); living high and training low (LH/TL) or living low and training high (LL/TH).
The most obvious example of living high and training high can be the consistent domination of endurance sport athletes coming from East Africa in counties such as Ethiopia and Kenya (Wilber, 2011). The environment in this area is perfect for the development of long distance runners as the high altitude forces an adaption to occur. Runners such as Mo Farah have taken this on board and have moved away from their families to high altitude environments, in his case the famous Rift valley, in Kenya. For those not born into high altitude conditions, Wilber (2011) showed that living high and training low may be the best option. This can allow for a higher training stimulus in training and therefor better performance when at sea level.
The live low, train high method has some advantages also. It can allow for increased recovery time after training due to the increased oxygen intake. However, due to training high, the training stimulus will be lower and consequently have a detrimental effect on performance. Brutsaert al (2000) shows that those who live at a lower altitude and train in high altitude conditions suffer lactate build up much earlier than those who live high, train high or train low.
Examples of the use of altitude training include the England rugby union team preparing for the rugby world cup in South Africa by doing interval training using masks, which fed through air simulating conditions of 2,000m. However, the Fitness coach of England at the time explained its use to be to “experience the conditions” and “suffer together”. So, despite its weak physiological application, it’s possible that it can have a significant psychological effect. Many athletes and teams choose different methods of using altitude training in their practice, with athletes such as the triathletes, the Brownlee brothers, sleeping in hypobaric tents, simulating the artificial version Live high, train low conditions or fighters in the UFC using Big bear, California, a live high train high approach, to prepare for fights.
With South America being a continent with some severe altitude variations, the 2014 FIFA world cup will be one where the effects of altitude will be noticeable throughout. Stadium altitudes will be ranging from 0 at sea level in Rio de Janiero to over 1,172 meters in the capitol city of Brasilia. It will be vital how team prepare for the tournament. This has happened previously with world cups held in Mexico in 1986 and more recently South Africa in 2010. Prior to the 2010 world cup in South Africa, England spent 2 weeks in the Austrian Alps attempting to acclimate to South African conditions. However, this produced a questionable result with England going out in the last 32 with a 4-1 defeat to Germany.
Research (Duke, Chapman & Levine 2012; Millet & Roels & Schmidt et al. 2010; Igor et al, 2011) has recommended that teams involved in high altitude conditions, go through an acclimating process ranging from 2 to 4 weeks to gain the benefits. However, due to the short period of time between the seasons in Europe finishing, it may be necessary to short this to 1-2 weeks to allow for recovery and other factors, which can occur (Billaut et al 2012). The acclimation effects will apply, but their influence will mostly be on health with small benefits for performance.
Further research (Billaut et al 2012) has shown that the effects of altitude in team sports can affect different positions in different ways. Due to the higher longer sprints of the wide players in the team such as fullbacks or wingers, it is harder for them to recover. This may mean a change in tactics by the coach to focus play through the middle as to alleviate the stress or even take more of players in these positions and rotate where possible. Rotation can allow for the maintenance of intensity in play, and allow for better recovery over the competition period.
Understanding the role that altitude training can have on performance is vital, as it will allow athletes to compete and train at higher levels and gain the edge they need. The use of a live high/Train Low approach has been shown to generate the greatest gain. It will be a tough task to overcome the East African dominance on endurance sport while their environment at high altitude. However, the live high approach could be achieved through artificial means such as chambers, tents or even hyperbaric houses depending on access and commitment. If an athlete the can reach the level hours needed in a day to acclimatise to the artificial altitude then there is no reason why a person at sea level cannot feel the benefits.
It will be interesting over the summer to see how international teams deal with the effects of altitude on performance and whether those countries who are used to higher altitudes can succeed. Acclimation, Combined with an effective recovery process, may just give those teams unaccustomed to it a chance at success.
Billaut, F & Gore, C & Aughey, R. (2012). Enhancing Team-Sport Athlete Performance. Sports Med. 42 (9), 751-767.
Brutsaert, T et al. (2000). Performance Of Altitude Acclimatized And Non-Acclimatized Professional Football (Soccer) Players At 3,600 M. Journal of Exercise Physiology. 3 (2), 28-37
Costill, L & Wilmore, H & Kenney, L. (2008). Physiology of sport and exercise. Human Kinetics.
Duke, J & Chapman, R & Levine, B. (2012). Live-High Train-Low Altitude Training on Maximal Oxygen Consumption in Athletes: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching. 7 (1), 15-19
Igor, R et al. (2011). New tendencies in the application of altitude training in sport preparation. Journal of Physical Education and Sport . 11 (2), 200-204
Millet, G & Roels, B & Schmidt, L et al. (2010). Combining hypoxic methods for peak performance. sports Med. 40 (1), 1-25
Smoliga, J. (2009). Altitude And Beyond: The Science Of Hypobaric Training. To Train Or Not To Train At Altitude.
Wilber, RL. (2011). Application of altitude/hypoxic training by elite athletes. Journal of human sport and exercise science. 6 (2), 271-286