Preparing for Altitude

FasterSkierNovember 15, 2007

Many elite athletes have used some form of altitude or hypoxic training to prepare for elite level competition. Likewise, many national level, elite, and recreational skiers are heading to moderate altitudes to train this fall and find early snow. Sovereign Lake race trails on Silver Star Mountain in British Columbia are at about 1600 m, West Yellowstone town is at 2030 m, and later this season some masters will compete at 1530 m in McCall, Idaho at the World Masters. I thought some information about altitude / hypoxic training would be pertinent. Important in this are strategies for “going up” to race or train.

The FIS legal limit for races is set at 1700 m, and race trails at Sovereign Lake trails are considered to be at altitude, while West Yellowstone is above FIS guidelines.

Altitude Training Strategies
There are a variety of altitude training strategies intended to temporarily boost athletic performance. The training plans that have been used over the years can primarily be divided into two categories:

  • Live High — Train High
  • Live High — Train Low

These two approaches can be implemented naturally, and also with the aid of hypoxic tents, and in some cases supplemental oxygen. Each method has specific benefits, but it’s important to note that each strategy takes time.

In the 1980’s I used the old “live high – train high” (LH-TH) approach to prepare for competition. Though this is a useful method of preparing for high altitude competitions, the efficacy of this approach to improve lower altitude performance has not been demonstrated. The 4% increase in VO2max that is typical with an effective altitude training program would not have translated into an improvement in performance at lower altitudes. In fact I may have detrained (Wilber, 2007). ‘Live and burn’, as they say!

Drs. Stray-Gunderson and Levine popularized the “live high – train low” (LH-TL) approach in the 90’s, and variations of this approach, have been used for years (Wilber, 2007). The live high part may cause an increase in naturally occurring EPO and a resultant increase in red blood cell (RBC) volume. It appears that in addition to increasing RBC volume, exposure over a period of time to a hypoxic environment may also improve exercise efficiency through improved intracellular bioenergetics and mitochondrial function and / or better muscle pH regulation and buffer capacity.

So maybe I did get some other benefits while training at altitude as a youngster! The train low part of the formula replicates sea-level intensity and oxygen flux to induce metabolic and neuromuscular adaptations to the exercise.


Gore, C. J., Clark, S. A. Sauders, P. U. (2007). Nonhematological mechanisms of improved sea-level performance after hypoxic exposure. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 39(9), 1600-1609.

Mazzeo, R. S., Fulco, C. S. Physiological systems and their responses to conditions of hypoxia. In C. M. Tipton (Ed.), ACSM’s Advanced Exercise Physiology (pp. 565-580). Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.

Wagner, P. D., Lundby, C. (2007). The lactate paradox: does acclimatization to high altitude affect blood lactate during exercise? Medicine & Science in Sports &
Exercise. 39(5), 749-755.

Wilber, R. L. (2007). Application of altitude/hypoxic training by elite athletes. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 39(9), 1590-1999.

Wilber, R. L., Stray-Gunderson, J., Levine, B. (2007). Effect of hypoxic dose on physiological responses and sea-level performance. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 39(9), 1590-1999.


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