It is common for athletes to move to high elevation locations in order to train for events. Locations like Boulder and Colorado Springs, CO are popular training sites for endurance athletes and olympians to live and train. But is elevation really the key to getting an edge in endurance sports? And can training at altitude help all types of athletes from beginners to professionals?

It’s a well known fact that there is less oxygen at higher elevation. This is because air pressure decreases at higher altitudes and therefore each breath contains fewer molecules of air. Oxygen molecules make up 21% of air at any elevation. But, due to decreasing air pressure, the effective oxygen percent of each breath decreases as altitude increases.

When looking at the effective oxygen content of air at altitude compared to sea level, there is 15% less oxygen at 5,000 feet (elevation of Denver), 26% less oxygen at 8,000 feet (elevation of Aspen), and 41% less oxygen at 14,000 feet (elevation of the Colorado 14ers)!1

So high altitudes make it harder to breath. You may be asking how does this help with training? Read on to find out how it works and the benefits.

1. Get better endurance due to increased red blood cell count.

Biking in the San Juan Mountains Durango - OutThere Colorado
Biking in the San Juan Mountains - Durango.  

Training at altitude affects the body’s physiology in a very interesting way. Lack of oxygen causes the release of the hormone erythropoietin (EPO), which in turn stimulates the productions of red blood cells. Red blood cells carry oxygen from the lungs to muscles, allowing muscles to fire. Therefore having a greater number of red blood cells allows muscles to fire at a higher and sustained rate, increasing aerobic fitness.

This physiological process is so successful, synthetic EPO has been used as one form of doping by elite endurance athletes. This is extremely dangerous and illegal for most sporting events, so you should stick with the natural EPO your body can make from being at high elevations. Natural EPO has also been shown to be more effective and lasting than synthetics; just a few weeks at elevations above 5,000 feet have a positive effect on red blood cell count!2 Additionally, non-elite athletes can have more drastic positive effects from training at high altitudes than elite athletes. 

2. Perform better at high and low altitudes.

Cross country skiing in Colorado - OutThere Colorado
Cross-country skiing—The perfect way to enjoy the outdoors in winter.  

Whether you are training for a marathon at sea level or the Leadville 100, training at altitude is a good idea.

Increased red blood cell counts as the result of high altitude training can last one to three months in athletes after returning to sea level. Therefore the aerobic fitness boost you get from training at altitude can stick around through a short season of races or competitions.

For events that are held at altitude, training in high places is arguably even more beneficial. Being accustomed to high elevation so that you are ready for how it affects performance is important. Acclimating to avoid altitude sickness mid-race is even more crucial.

3. Because you get to train in places like this.

Summiting Pikes Peak Colorado Springs Photo Credit Austin Miller - OutThere Colorado
Summiting Pikes Peak Colorado Springs. Photo Credit: Austin Miller.  

Sources:
1) Baillie, Kenneth. "Oxygen Levels." Altitude.org. Web. 22 May 2016.
2) Baker, A. & Hopkins, W.G. (1998). Altitude training for sea-level competition In: Sportscience Training & Technology. Internet Society for Sport Science. http://sportsci.org/traintech/altitude/wgh.html
3) Hutchinson, Alex. "The Benefits of Altitude Training for Non-Pro Runners."Runner's World. 25 June 2014. Web. 21 May 2016.