Into Thin Air

The Ups and Downs of Altitude Training.

The value of the physiological effects of living and training at high altitudes has been studied as far back as the mid-1960s, but only in the last few years has it become a popular topic in the realm of combat sports. Several top fighters have been seen on “all-access” shows and in the pages of magazines discussing the relocation of their training camps to high altitudes because of the purported benefits. Even more recently, a range of training equipment has been promoted to “simulate the effects of training at altitude” as well.

Given the obviously brutal physical and mental demands of training and competing in sports that require both explosiveness and endurance like MMA, BJJ, boxing, and wrestling, it’s no surprise that athletes in these sports are looking for every advantage they can get. The real question, however, is whether or not training at altitude, or using equipment designed to simulate doing so, provides any real performance enhancing benefits for combat athletes.

Moving an entire training camp to a location far outside of an athlete’s hometown and up to high elevations often requires a serious investment of time and money, so it’s important to know whether or not the potential performance enhancement will be worth the associated costs. Before making drastic changes to one’s training curriculum, take a closer look at altitude training for combat sports and examine the potential benefits, as well as the drawbacks, and discuss whether or not altitude training and the related equipment being sold today is all it’s made out to be—or if combat athletes are better off staying home.

Altitude Training 101

The basics of what it is and how it works

The interest and research in altitude training began in the late 1960s after the Olympics held in Mexico City (elevation 7349ft) resulted in markedly decreased performances in endurance events while conversely, many world records were broken in sprint/power events. After more than 40 years of research and experience, it’s now well understood that when the body is chronically exposed to higher altitudes— where the temperatures, humidity, and pressure of oxygen are lower, while sun and ultra violet and radiation are higher—several changes take place:

• Increase in EPO—stimulates red blood cell count and allows for greater oxygen transport

• Improved VO2 max—the maximum amount of oxygen that can be delivered to muscles

• Increase in capitalization leading to greater oxygen delivery to working muscles

• Increased ability to buffer cellular acidity and tolerate anaerobic exercise

• Greater total blood volume

All of these changes are the result of the body’s defenses at work, doing what they can to make sure your vital organs and muscles continue to get the oxygen and other nutrients they need despite being in an environment that’s quite different from sea level. Many adaptations begin to occur as soon as an athlete reaches altitude, but most research shows that it typically takes at least 7-10 days of acclimatization before they start to really kick in and 3-4 weeks before they reach their peaks.

It’s also important to note that during those first 7-10 days, there is actually a drop in all these functions before they subsequently rebound and begin to improve. During this time, immune system function is compromised, as well, and the body becomes more prone to infections and illness.


Does it improve endurance, or not?

The changes that take place in an athlete’s body while living and training at altitude are generally well understood and agreed upon in scientific literature, however, the effects on performance are much less clear and far more complicated. It is no surprise that the benefits of altitude training have been the subject of a great deal of debate. Over the years, countless studies have been done on altitude training—over varying lengths of time and at different altitudes— with highly mixed and variable results.

Some studies have shown positive changes and improvements in performance, some have shown no difference at all when compared to training at sea level, and some have even shown decreases in performance. Often, the decreases have been attributed to the fact that it’s simply much harder to train at high intensities at altitude given the reduced oxygen, and it’s also well documented that muscle loss often occurs as a result of prolonged exposure as well. It seems that with such lowered training intensities and reduced muscle mass, some athletes were simply unable to maintain their same level of fitness, despite the beneficial changes in aerobic function that took place as a result of being at altitude.

In an attempt to decipher these mixed results, researchers began experimenting with a model that became known as “Live High/Train Low.” Using this approach, athletes would live at higher altitudes, but then return to much lower elevations to train. This, of course, offered the advantages that come with exposure to high altitudes without the reduced training intensity.

Generally, this model has proven to be more effective and has shown greater improvements in performance when compared to both living and training at high altitudes, but descending to lower altitudes to train every day is not always a practical option. Some athletes have attempted to spend either several hours per day or all night in a hypobaric chamber to try and simulate the effects of living
at high altitudes while training in their normal environments, but it’s unclear whether this truly simulates living at altitude. Several studies have shown little to no changes in red blood cells, blood volume, and other measures of aerobic fitness.


Individual results may vary

When looking at the research alone, it’s difficult to make a clear case for going through the time and effort of moving a training camp to high altitudes, yet many athletes and coaches swear by the benefits of doing so. There’s no doubt that many successful athletes have routinely trained at high altitudes throughout their careers and reported feeling a noticeable improvement in their performance upon their return to sea level. These include several well-known combat athletes who have reported marked improvements in their conditioning after training at altitude.

Given this assertion, the real questions to ask are: Why have some studies showed improvements in performance while others have shown no improvement or even decreases in performance? Even more importantly, what are the implications for combat sports? Fortunately, in recent years, science has finally provided insight into some of these questions.

Perhaps the most clear cut answer is that we now know that there is a great deal of individuality in the body’s response to training at altitude. Some athletes respond well and see measurable improvements in performance, while others see next to none. It appears that the reason stems from genetics.

What science has been able to uncover is that some athletes possess genes that allow them to respond well to exposure to altitude and, therefore, see marked improvements in fitness—and some do not possess these genes. This means that athletes can generally be categorized into “responders” and “non-responders,” which explains, at least in part, why some studies show improvements in performance and some do not, as most test groups will include a mix of both “responders” and “non-responders.” The ratio of these two groups will have a strong influence on the study results as a whole.

Furthermore, it’s clear that aside from the genetic individuality in response, a huge number of variables also affect performance and the subsequent results as well. The exact altitude that’s used for living and/or training, the length of the stay at altitude, the type, amount, and quality of training that’s done, the sport being trained, how long an athlete spends back at sea level before their competition can all make a huge difference in the results.

When all these things are dialed in properly and an athlete has the right genes to respond well to being at altitude, fitness and performance can noticeably improve. When all these factors are not well-suited to the needs of the athlete or sport and/or the athlete doesn’t have the right genes, it’s highly likely that no real benefit will be seen and performance may even decrease as a result. In other words, after all the time, effort and expense of living and/or training at high altitude for several weeks, it’s possible that your fitness may end up worse than before you started.


Altitude training for combat sports

By now, it should be clear that although altitude training has been promoted by some as the ultimate, end-all, be-all, legal form of performance enhancement, the reality is that it’s highly complex with a great deal of variables and there are no guarantees that it will improve performance. The decision to move a training camp to altitude should not be made lightly, and the only real way to know how you’re going to respond to such training is to try it.

Several products have recently appeared on the market, which have been promoted to simulate training at altitude by restricting airflow. While these may seem like a good alternative, the reality is that none of these devices replicate the environment seen at altitude whatsoever. There’s a world of difference between what is experienced at high altitudes—changes in the pressure of oxygen, temperatures, humidity, ultra-violet exposure—and wearing a mask that makes it harder to breathe. Such devices are certainly no substitute for living/training at altitude—not to mention that the Live High/Train Low model discussed earlier shows that the greatest benefits are seen from living at altitude, not just training there—and there is next to no research to support their use or reason.

For combat athletes, this means that the only way to find out if you’ll respond well to altitude is to try it. But attempting such measures for the first time in the midst of getting ready for a big fight is a risky endeavor. You might get lucky and have your efforts rewarded with improved conditioning, or you may turn out to be a non-responder, train at the wrong altitude, or get sick during the acclimatization period, and see no results or negative results. In other words,
there’s a lot that can go wrong, so it’s a good idea to try training at altitude when a big fight and your career aren’t on the line.

Combat athletes also need to consider that at the end of the day, quality of training, coaching, and training partners are always the most important components of success. If moving a camp to altitude means that fewer training partners will be available, certain coaches might not be able to make the trip, or that you might not have access to all the necessary facilities and training equipment, then the sacrifices in the quality of training may far outweigh any potential fitness benefits.

On the other hand, if moving a training camp to altitude means you’ll be more focused in training and get away from your daily routine, stress, and distractions, then these potential benefits should be considered as well. Before deciding to live and/or train at altitude as part of a training camp, each and every combat athlete needs to answer several important questions and consider a wide range of variables, because when it comes to altitude training, just as in fighting, there are no guarantees, and the difference between success and failure most often lies in preparation.  

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