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9 things I know about altitude training for better running performance


I’ve researched altitude training (BSc and PhD), I’ve been to almost every altitude base in the world (Font Romeu, St Moritz, Iten, Eldoret, Addis Ababa, Saluta, Potchefstroom, Dullstroom, Park City, Flagstaff, Albuquerque, Colorado Springs, Gifu, Nagano), I’ve worked with some of the best distance runners on the planet (Farah, Bekele, Kipchoge), I’ve stood in Olympic stadiums (London, Rio), I’ve watched people succeed and I’ve watched people fail. Here are 9 things I know about altitude training.


1. Altitude training exposes your weaknesses exponentially.

Physical, technical, structural or mental, altitude training will find weakness and exploit them like no other test. And make no mistake, altitude training is a huge test for your body. The longer you go for, or the higher you go, the worse it gets. Despite what people think…


2. Altitude training is not a panacea.

It will not solve all your problems. It will not make you an overnight success. Done right you may progress but…


3. Altitude training is very hard to do, don’t underestimate it.

It lures you in with stories of greatness , Mo Farah, Kenyan runners, they all do it, and they all do well. But what they don’t tell you is that it is hard to do. It’s hard on the body, it’s hard on the heart and lungs, it’s hard on your brain. So when you write the plan, do a little bit less. It’s going to take you to a place that sea level can’t. But it’s also hard on your personal life as…


4. Altitude training needs to be a long term commitment.

It’s 20+ weeks a year on the road in sometimes harsh environments. Heat, cold, no air and detached from the world. It takes a special person to do it week after week, month after month, and year after year because that is what it takes. It is not a 3–4 week study…


5. Altitude training is not an academic study.

Yes academic studies are required to understand why or how it may work (or not) but they are not reflective of real life and probably never can be. You can’t control a large group of distance runners at altitude for 20+ weeks. Studies are however good for understanding some of the mechanisms that may contribute to the benefits of altitude training, but in my opinion…


6. Altitude training is not about red blood cells Despite a popular belief that it is about red cells, normal altitude training done right over a significant period of time is about the peripheral changes in the muscle. Creating efficiencies in the body for oxygen delivery, handling and utilisation is the main goal. An increase in red cells is a short term fix (that is exploited by dopers), it’s the longer term gains that matter. And it’s the momentum it can create within a training group, a national program that pays dividends…

7. Altitude training can be a vehicle for change. Having a large group of like minded people training together is massively positive and self perpetuating. Add to that an Olympic Gold medalist or a incredibly professional athlete within the group and it pulls people along. It takes them to places they never thought they could go. How to train, how to recover, how to win…

8. Altitude training produces incredible performance. Not everyone agrees but the fact is that all the best athletes from 1500m and up use altitude at some point in their annual training plan. 800m runners can sometimes be heard saying it’s not for me, I’m a non-responder, but the truth is, everyone is a responder, some people are just slower than others to respond, or some people just lack creativity to find a solution…

9. Altitude training is as much an art as it is a science. Yes there are scientific principles that underpin altitude training, there are things you should do and things you definitely shouldn’t do. But when it comes to crafting an annual plan that is progressive, controlled, championship focussed, altitude training is as much an art as it is a science. The best coaches have a grasp of the science but are artists in the true sense of the word when trying to get the best performance out of an athlete when it matters most. Week in week out, making decisions about what they see in front of them, keeping the athlete moving forward, being creative with workouts and stimuli, avoiding sickness and injury.


So there you have it, altitude training for better running performance is tough to achieve. It’s not as simple as doing what you do at home, it takes planning, commitment and above all else patience. My advice for anyone looking to buy-in to the altitude approach is to talk to someone who knows what to do, an experienced coach or physiologist who can guide you along the way. Because without that person it is a perilous (and expensive) path to enlightenment.






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