For hard core athletes and military troops looking to get an edge, altitude training may be an answer to shocking your body into working harder. Altitude training has been touted by olympic-level athletes and coaches who claim it increase strength, speed and endurance while improving recovery and avoiding fatigue.
I gave it a try recently for this column and also did some research to see if it is really safe. My verdict: it’s no joke and not for the “faint” of heart.
According to Wikipedia, “Altitude training is the practice by some endurance athletes of training for several weeks at high altitude, preferably over 2,400 metres (8,000 ft) above sea level, though more commonly at intermediate altitudes due to the shortage of suitable high-altitude locations. At intermediate altitudes, the air still contains approximately 20.9% oxygen, but the barometric pressure and thus the partial pressure of oxygen is reduced.”
My first experiment was to try to run 3 miles in Aspen, CO. I had taken anti-altitude sickness pills, Acetazolamide, a day before arriving and throughout my trip, so I thought it would be no sweat. I usually can run 3–4 miles without stopping or being out of breath and consider it an easy workout day. However in my 30 min jog in the mountains, I had to stop 5 times because I was so out of breath. Feeling like my workout was not hard enough because I kept stopping, I headed to the hotel gym for some weightlifting. I could not catch my breath and instead of doing multi-tasking toning moves, I had to stop and break it down — doing just biceps curls, just french presses, just lunges, not combining core/arms/legs like I usually do.
I noticed my hands and feet tingling. Not a fun sensation, then I felt nausea later in the room. I just wanted to curl up in bed and feel better. (Remember I am a personal trainer, plyometric cardio interval and weight lifting class instructor, runner, p90X enthusiast, fitness DVD creator and yogi who works out 6 days a week.)
The next day we tried a hike in the mountains. I hike in the hills of Pennsylvania every chance I can get out of NYC, an barely even consider it a workout. Again, pins and needles and shortness of breath hit me on the advanced trail, so we turned around and took the scenic one.
I recognized and researched some of the symptoms of altitude sickness including headache, fatigue, pins and needles, rapid pulse, lack of appetite or nausea, nosebleeds, dizziness, and trouble sleeping to name a few. Working out and drinking alcohol makes symptoms worse.
If you are considering trying altitude training, my advice would be to talk with your doctor first, and spend some time in the high altitude location, maybe a week, without working out (first time I ever recommended not working out!), so your body gets used to it (I was only there for 3 days). Give yourself plenty of time there if you are serious about training. Stay really hydrated, and perhaps find some oxygen inhalers (they had one in the mini bar at the hotel). Do some research on sites like Altitude.org and Altitudetraining.com
Upon my return I never thought Newark air was so delicious, but my workouts the rest of the following week did seem effortless. My verdict on this kind of training is: it might bring gains, but it might set your body back more than it helps. Good health is a gift, so don’t jeopardize it.