Elevation-by Lizl Kotz
The view is expansive. At first I recognize the steady beat of my heart. A strong thud-thud because I am asking it to work. Within the first three minutes of my run, I encounter the first hill. My heart immediately responds; the beating turns into pounding and echoes in my head. The dancing leaves on the white-barked Aspen trees distracts from the fire in my chest, but only for a moment. I wish the pounding would escape through my ears, but it remains to warn that I am asking too much. I yearn to breathe in the humid, oxygen-rich air I’m accustomed to running in. Slowly, I lift my eyes and take it all in: a dreamy mountain town below, sitting in the lap of the Rocky Mountains. The carpets of wildflowers cover the rugged mountain slopes and are perfectly juxtaposed and inspire me to keep running. I want more of this alpine scenery and so I keep going, ignoring the fire in my chest.
The effect of altitude on performance has always been an interest of mine. How peculiar that an athlete will find themselves sucking wind at the slightest physical demand when at altitude? Picture Michael Phelps grimacing, bent over, trying to catch his breath after swimming a routine warm-up lap. At altitude the air has fewer molecules of oxygen per volume and feels “thinner”. Every breath Phelps takes at high altitude delivers less than what his working muscles require. This deficit slowly reverses when an athlete trains at altitude (ideally 8000ft) for 4-6 weeks. During this period, the body makes more red blood cells to carry and deliver the much craved oxygen. Athletes who then travel back to lower altitude competitions have legally altered their blood makeup similarly to injecting synthetic EPA or blood doping. This blood expanding effect can last for 10-20 days after leaving altitude and can enhance performance in elite athletes by 1-2 percent. Currently, most sports organizations are not concerned with athletes naturally changing their blood makeup by training up in the mountains.
However, training at altitude may not be the answer. Science seems elusive and the recommendations vary widely due to the individuality of each human body. Moving to a high altitude city is no small undertaking and I personally would want to have more science-backed recommendations before packing my bags. Some experts warn that any cellular advantages from training at high altitude may be negated by not being able to exercise at high intensities compared to sea level. Secondly, insomnia is often a problem for athletes training at high altitude. No athlete can perform well with inadequate sleep, even given vessels bursting with red blood cells. Not recovering well between workouts due to lack of sleep and having sub-maximal workouts are huge factors on performance and may just be a deal-breaker.
Scientists have attempted to solve this conundrum by recommending a live-high, train-low modality. While living high (Park City, Utah) the body increases it’s red blood cell count and by training low (Salt Lake, Utah) athletes are able to train at max intensity. For now this appears to be the best of both sea-level and high-altitude worlds.
Elite-level athletes sacrifice so much to reach their potential. Who can blame these athletes for adding any possible edge to their training regimen? Until the evidence is more conclusive, I think I’ll just enjoy life as I know it at sea level. Hot, humid air is loaded with oxygen and I’ll try to think of it as delicious and nutritious. I may also take a technical shortcut and invest in an alien-looking sleep tent which simulates high altitude. These tents range from $2,500 to $5000. It may not be a sexy shortcut but it seems way more reasonable than moving. And if Michael Phelps is OK with sleeping under a mosquito-net-oxygen-contraption then I think I can be too.