By Donny Shankle
Training at altitude to gain a competitive edge is nothing new. At higher elevation air molecules are less dense. The air is thinner. One of the ways your body compensates for this while training is to produce more red blood cells. These red blood cells carry oxygen to the muscle. Consequently, the body’s physiology has changed and the idea is to roll into competition with this change. Once you return back to sea level, and can breathe easier, your body is still used to creating more red blood cells. The muscles therefore will have more oxygen delivered to them than is typically normal and this can increase your performance. Any time I have competed at sea level after training at higher altitude I performed very well. I not only felt stronger but I also felt a burst of energy. You don’t always feel the effects of training at altitude while you are in it. Nevertheless, you always feel the difference when you return back to sea level. You can breathe easier and the feeling is even sometimes euphoric. If you are competing at higher altitude and are not acclimated to it, I advise arriving to your competition a few days early. This will help you get accustomed to the new conditions.
My experience training at altitude occurred while living in Colorado Springs. The Olympic Training Center located there sits at over six thousand feet above sea level. Interestingly, most research I have found only talks about the effects of high altitude training on aerobic exercise. A weightlifter’s training may not be exactly aerobic, but even a single session can last many hours. There are also multiple training sessions in a day. While living on the OTC, I sometimes trained three times a day for as many as eight total hours and sometimes more in a given day. Granted the hours spent training are not continuous but you are still in the gym. Training this way is not unusual once you are at this level and the effects of this type of training stay with you. The muscles ARE using more oxygen than you may realize when you are training this many hours in a day. This includes the heart which is working harder to pump blood through the body. Still, the altitude you train at cannot be too high. If you are training at too high an altitude you risk developing nausea as well as a number of other complications. I highly doubt you will ever run into this type of problem as I do not see any weightlifting gyms in airplanes, on mountain peaks, or space stations.
Each time I visited the OTC, I acclimatized well but remember feeling very tired by the end of the training day. The benefits of training at higher altitude do not stop in the gym. Sleep makes up a third of your day and focus in training does not stop while you are asleep. Your subconscious is still working as you dream. You may even need to see a therapist who specializes in helping you sleep better or spend money on expensive mattresses, recliners, pillows, etc. The reason I slept better at higher altitude is because my body was working harder. The cardiovascular, respiratory, nervous, and endocrine systems were all working overtime. The only way they could adapt to the increased demand training at higher altitude was to sleep longer and deeper. I personally find REM sleep is much easier to achieve at higher altitude. However, performance is better the closer you are to sea level. The more oxygen rich air keeps the red blood cells flowing through the muscles allowing you to train heavier more often. Periodically training at altitude I find to be the best choice for your body. As with anything else, don’t over do it.