Altitude versus sea level

Why has the progression of world records slumped since endurance athletes began training at altitude?

During the years between 1956 and 1968, no endurance runner gave a thought to training in Boulder, Albuquerque, the French Alps, the mountains near Mexico City, or in any of the currently popular moderate- to high-altitude training sites. In spite of that glaring omission, in spite of the fact that almost every serious endurance athlete was training mundanely at sea level, world records at distances ranging from 1500 to 10,000 metres improved at an incredible rate.

For example, world-record pace in the 1500 metres improved from about 6.8 metres per second in 1956 to a nifty 7.03 metres per second in 1968, a 3.4-per cent upgrade which translated into about a seven-second improvement per 1500 metres.

In the 10,000-meter event, world-record speed advanced from around 5.76 metres per second in 1956 to about 6.03 metres per second in 1968, a 4.7-per cent upswing which corresponded with a stunning, greater than 75-second improvement in 10-K time.

You would expect that records would have continued to advance at a similar, or even higher, rate after 1968, especially since African runners were beginning to emerge as powerful forces in the world of endurance running during the 1970s. But 1968 turned out to be a critical year in the history of endurance training. With the Olympic Games scheduled for Mexico City that year, almost all of the best distance runners trained at altitude in order to optimally prepare for Mexico City’s 7500-foot elevation. Many of those runners continued training at altitude 14 subsequent years, and altitude training has gained in popularity among endurance athletes since then.

Since altitude training is so popular today, it must be an especially advantageous way to train, right? And surely the wholesale movement to altitude to train in 1968 must have produced a rash of new world records?

It ain’t necessarily so
Well, think again. As University of Montreal researcher Francois Peronnet points out, not a single new world mark at middle or long distances was established in 1968. Between the years of 1956 and 1991, there were 23 years in which a new world record was set and 13 years of famine, so it’s not exceedingly surprising that 1968 was a fallow year, However, what is really remarkable is that not a single world best was set in the four-year period between 1968 and 1971, right after altitude training became popular. That’s the longest time period between 1956 and 1991 in which no new record was established.

Even after 1971, when new world records did begin to appear again, the rate at which records improved was considerably slower, compared to before 1968. For example, world-record velocity at 1500 metres progressed by just 1.7 per cent in the 23-year period between the years 1968-1991, even though the world mark had climbed by double that amount – 3.4 per cent – in the shorter span of 12 years between 1956 and 1968. Likewise, 10-K world-record speed climbed by just 1.5 per cent between 1968 and 1991, a sharp slump compared to the 4.7-per cent hike between 1956 and 1968.

While it’s risky to blame the increased popularity of altitude training for all of the decline in world-record improvement rates, it seems likely that the shift to altitude training was at least partly responsible. After all, when sea-level athletes go to altitude to train, they automatically begin training less intensely – at slower speeds than they would utilize at sea level. For example, a sea-level runner who has moved to 7500 feet or so will usually conduct interval and long-run workouts 5-10 per cent more slowly than usual. Training more slowly is definitely not the way to set world records.

So why do so many endurance athletes train at altitude? Sometimes, bone-headed things are popular. And altitude does have one positive effect for endurance runners: it builds up the blood’s oxygen carrying capacity. However, as we’ve pointed out many times in PEAK PERFORMANCE, the optimal strategy is to live at altitude but to train at sea level, as Chinese women distance runners and Finnish cross country skiers have done recently. Living at altitude ‘dopes’ the blood naturally, and training at sea level permits the highest-quality training.

How to beat the Kenyans
What about those pesky Kenyans, the most successful group of endurance athletes in the world, who do most of their training at altitude, at least while they’re in Kenya? Bear in mind that most of the elite Kenyans were born at altitude and thus have long-term physiological adaptations associated with growing up at altitude. Moving from sea level to altitude as an adult won’t produce the same positive cardiovascular and muscular alterations.

The Kenyans also use altitude training to give them a mental edge over their opponents. By consistently completing small doses of race-pace running at altitude, the Kenyans have a lower feeling of effort than their sea-level opponents from other countries when the two groups run together at race pace at sea level. Someone who is used to running at 4:25 per mile pace at altitude will always feel that a 4:25 tempo is much easier and more sustainable at sea level. The way to get around this – and beat the Kenyans – is to train consistently at faster than race pace at sea level, but few sea-level athletes have the background, knowledge, or skill to pull this off.

What about anecdotal evidence favouring altitude, like the fact that Uta Pippig trained at altitude prior to her recent Boston Marathon win? It’s never a good idea to formulate a training principle based on the performances of individual athletes. For all we know, Pippig might have run even more strongly if she had lived and trained at sea level or – better yet – lived at altitude and trained at sea level.

The bottom line is that altitude training is necessary for athletes who hope to compete optimally at altitude. However, there’s absolutely no scientific evidence to support the idea that altitude training is superior to sea-level training for sea-level competitions. In fact, the evidence suggests that altitude training is less likely than sea-level preparation to produce truly topnotch performances.

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