For those who haven’t been anywhere of high altitude or even heard what differences this poses compared to sea level, you would probably struggle to see why this is even in question. Simply training somewhere that is high above sea level doesn’t immediately sound like it would give you improved physical results than training anywhere at low altitude.
For those however who have been to places at high altitude would be able to tell you that breathing is harder, especially when undertaking strenuous exercise. And even then, initially you would predict that this can only be a negative for your training because you may not be able to train at the same intensity as at sea level. This is a fair hypothesis and is in fact one of the negatives associated with the practice.
The reason it is harder to breathe in places at high altitude (ideally above 2,400m above sea level) is as you increase the altitude the concentration of oxygen in the air decreases. This decrease in oxygen concentration means that every breath you take in, your body is gaining less oxygen than it would normally at low altitude. This initially has a negative impact on physical performance as your body needs oxygen in order for its muscles to function for medium to long durations.
This lack of oxygen intake doesn’t produce any immediate results, however, after a few weeks of living and exercising at a high altitude the body has undergone significant acclimatisation to the ‘thinner’ air. The body’s respiratory and cardiovascular systems start to adapt and slowly improve the efficiency of its ability to take in, distribute and use the oxygen supplied. This is enabled by the hormone erythropoietin (AKA ‘EPO’) triggering the production of more red blood cells, which are what carry oxygen to muscles.
When the athletes now return to sea level they are equipped with a competitive advantage. Their body’s will generally be able to deliver sufficient oxygen to the muscles for a longer period of intense physical exertion than the athletes who have purely trained at low altitude. Although this is more so the case if the period and intensity of their training has been relatively similar to each other.
Training at high altitude doesn’t mean you will necessarily improve beyond your previous potential, it rather allows athletes to make greater progress in their physical aerobic (oxygen required) conditioning in a shorter amount of time. Making it ideal for professional athletes who have a relatively short pre-season timeframe, such as AFL players.
Many AFL teams these days use altitude training as a key component in their pre-season programs. Surprisingly however, even though the method has been around for over 50 years it wasn’t until the end of 2005 that it started to be used. It was Collingwood football clubs’ David Buttifant who introduced the concept to the team after he saw how successful it was with the Australian swimming team in the Sydney olympics.
The above link shows Davids explanation of altitude training and why he decided to implement it.
After the implementation of the program Collingwood saw great success, making the finals series every year from 2006-2013, winning the 2010 premiership and playing off in the 2011 premiership. David left Collingwood at the end of the 2013 season and consequently Collingwood haven’t made the finals since.
The continuous dominance of Kenya in long distance running events has been well documented for many years, although most people don’t know that one of the key reasons for this is the high altitude of most of Kenya, specifically the town of Iten which is 2,400m above see level.
The following video shows this example.