High Country Adaptations

Here is a question I received recently from in one of my Athletes:


From your studies, does living and working out at altitude present benefits to an athlete or does there come a point where it is detrimental?  I know the body produces more capillaries and adjusts to being at altitude, but what have your findings been?

  I liked this question because it encouraged me to research beyond what I knew from my knowledge and experience which is mostly related to sport performance and dive into what happens to just about anybody who has adapted to live at higher altitude.

  Here is my multi-level and very long response:

  First; what I have learned from my personal and coaching experience over the years:
  • It takes 4-5 months for an athlete new to elevation, whom would be competitive with their high-elevation-living peers at sea-level, to be competitive with them at elevation.  So think positive when you’re getting your butt kicked by your buddies at elevation; bring them down to your old stomping ground or wait 4-5 months and it will be a different story.
  • When an athlete who normally lives at elevation, drops down to sea-level for 5 days or more before a competition back at elevation, their performance at elevation is negatively affected.  I call this the Family Vacation Paradox; it happened to me in 2010 and one of my athletes in 2011 in preparation for the Mount Evans Hill Climb which tops out at plus 14,000 feet.  We were both so dizzy and nearly incoherent at up top that we couldn’t decide whether we should take a nap or get off the mountain!
  • Consistent once a week exposure to altitude significantly increases an athlete’s ability to perform in the high country.   So in prep for Mount Evans this year, I spent more time near and above 10,000 feet on rides out of Boulder and I did a Mount Evans Pre-Ride the week before.  Even though I had my peak fitness behind me, I had a solid race.
  • Be careful not to train to hard when spending a lot of time at elevation.  Your immune system will suffer, you could feel inflamed, fatigued, and sick more often and easily over-train.  Instead be pumped that you can recover more and still get just as fit because of the acclimation effects from being at altitude!
  • With very attentive training I feel that a “live high train high” situation can come be nearly as effective as ‘living high training low’ at producing the best results for endurance athletes.   Smart training at altitude includes shorter intervals at the speeds you could have held for longer at sea-level.  Rest a little longer between sets.  Do less hard workouts each week and supplement in more easier aerobic workouts
  • …and take my advice; don’t go up to the high country and xc-ski for a couple hours, eat Taco Bell, come back down to Boulder, have dinner and a couple beers, go back up to Vail later that evening, hit the night life and expect your GI track to cooperate!  Funny thing was that I had a great XC Ski race followed by a 3rd place in the snow shoe race in Frisco the next morning …to be young again!
  After a little search engine research I was able to pull together these bullets about what happens to most of the general population with chronic exposure to high altitudes: Cardiovascular adaptations:
  • Increased capillary density allowing the muscles to absorb more oxygen (re-explained below in Pulmonary and Muscular adaptations).
  • Reduction in resting and sub-maximal HR’s
  • Increased hematocrit
  • Increased Mean Arterial Pressure (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mean_arterial_pressure) due to systemic vascular resistance, increased catecholamine secretion and the raised blood viscosity from more hematocrit.  MAP is essential in making sure our organs get adequate blood but as you can see with the above equations, it goes hand in hand with high blood pressure.
  • Increased VO2max after acclimatization at sea level but decreased VO2max at elevation and lower ability to sustain and hold sub-maximal VO2max workloads.
  Pulmonary and VO2 adaptations:
  • Increased pulmonary blood pressure and vascularity
  • Above allows for greater oxygen perfusion between longs and pulmonary arteries.
  • Increased ventilation
  Hematological and Muscular adaptations:
  • Increase in hemoglobin, red blood cells and hematocrit improves our oxygen carrying capacity.
  • Increase skeletal muscular vascularity and tissue myoglobin which improves our oxygen transport and absorption.
  Bioenergetics (in respect to energy / lactate utilization)
  • Reduced reliance on muscle glycogen stores concurrent with an increase demand on blood glucose utilization.
  • Decrease lactate found in blood currently explained by an increase in lactate uptake by skeletal muscles, liver and kidneys.
  Body Composition
  • Weight loss; both losses in body fat and lean tissue have been reported to living at higher altitudes.
  • The weight loss may result from suppressed appetites at high altitudes as well as increased caloric expenditure from higher basal metabolic rates (BMR).
  • Fat catabolism/ utilization and gluconeogenisis (which converts proteins into glucose) will both increase if the diet is inadequate.
  • In addition Exercise Metabolic Rate is increased at any given workload giving an increased caloric expenditure.
  Life expectancy increased – I pulled the information below from a great article I found in Science Daily
  • People living at high altitudes have a lower chance of dying of ischemic heart disease and live longer than those at sea level.
  • Living at higher elevations turn on genes that may change the way the heart muscles function.
  • These genes may also produce new blood vessels that create new highways for blood flow into the heart.
  • “Another explanation could be that increased solar radiation at altitude helps the body better synthesize vitamin D which has beneficial  effects on the heart and some kinds of cancer.”
  • Of the top 20 counties with the highest life expectancy eleven of the counties for men and 5 for women were located in the high altitude states of Colorado and Utah. 1-3.5 years or longer.
  • When the health benefits from socio-economic, solar radiation, smoking and pulmonary disease were taken into account, the net effect of altitude on overall life expectancy was negligible.
  • I liked this statement “Colorado, the highest state in the nation, is also the leanest, the fittest, has the fewest deaths from heart disease and a lower incidence of colon and lung cancer compared to others.”
http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/03/110325151643.htm   So maybe the healthier living of those at higher altitudes is more the reason than the effects on the heart but at least researchers are trying to learn more about it!   Endurance Sports Performance
  • Because of adaptations like increased ventilalation and decreased ability to work at high percentages of our VO2max speed and power at elevation will decrease.
  • Another contributors to this speed and power loss at attitude is the decreased blood plasma and higher blood viscosity at altitude.  The more viscous the blood the harder is for the heart to move it around.
  • Training with less speed and power won’t give us the same muscular stress we could engage at sea level.  So in order to compensate, athletes training at altitude must utilize shorter intervals or efforts and have longer rest between repetitions.
  • The increased stress of high intensity exercise at altitude at elevation also requires that endurance athletes have more recovery time between hard days.
  • This creates a paradigm where athletes training smart at altitude are stronger at altitude and when they adequately prepare for the speeds they hope to hold at sea level they will have an advantage in both situations.
  Much of the information above was assimilated from Physiological Responses to Altitude by Frank B. Wyatt: http://www.exercisephysiologists.com/Altitude/index.html.  I liked this article because it didn’t have a strong tie to exercise and performance rather a general response to attitude.

Written by

Head Coach of TriEndurance. CSCS Strength and Conditioning Coach, Former Pro-Triathlete and current Endurance Enthusiast competing in short and long distance (on or off-road) cycling events.

1 Comments to “High Country Adaptations”

  1. Sophia says:

    This post is very usefull thx!