Andrew Hamilton looks at some recent and fascinating research on how menthol could help athletes beat the heat - and combat the cold! MORE
If you are very fit, big and male, you will suffer more at altitude.
Previous studies have shown that at an altitude greater than 1000m, VO2 max decreases. However, there is a large individual variation in the actual decrement in aerobic power. This latest study investigated a large sample of subjects with a wide range of fitness to find out which factors can contribute to the decrease in VO2 max at altitude.
It would appear that five variables are highly influential: VO2 max at sea level, lactate threshold (LT) at sea level, gender, lean body mass (LBM), and the change in oxygen saturation in the blood between sea level and altitude. The higher your VO2 max at sea level, the greater your decrease in fitness will be at altitude. Similarly, males and individuals with larger lean body mass will also suffer a greater decrease in VO2 max at altitude. In addition, those with a high LT do not suffer such a great decrease in fitness, nor do those whose change in O2 saturation at altitude is smaller.
These results suggest that smaller men and women with a high LT will perform best at altitude, even if they have a similar VO2 max at sea level. Bigger individuals, especially men, with high sea-level VO2 max and low LT will do the worst. The influence of LT and LBM suggests that peripheral oxygen diffusion to the muscles is crucial to aerobic performance at altitude, with smaller individuals having less muscle to diffuse oxygen to, and those with high LT having greater muscular oxidative respiratory powers. This may be one reason why smaller riders in the Tour de France do best in the mountains. It is not possible from this research to conclude that smaller, high-LT individuals would benefit more from altitude training, though they might acclimatise quicker.
(Robergs et al (1998). ‘Multiple variables explain the variability in the decrement in VO2max during acute hypobaric hypoxia.’ Med Sci Sp & Ex, 30 (6), 869-879)