High Altitude Training

The best place in the world to train is in Finland.

As we’ve reported many times in PEAK PERFORMANCE, living at altitude is great for the endurance athlete. Moderate to high-altitude living increases red-blood-cell concentrations, allowing more oxygen to reach the muscles during exercise, and also hikes the levels of an important chemical called 2.3-DPG, which helps ‘release’ oxygen from red blood cells to the muscles during intense exercise

The problem with altitude, though, is that training there stinks. By limiting the amount of oxygen that can reach the muscles, altitude lowers average workout quality. Most athletes carry out both their continuous and interval workouts about 5-10 per cent less intensely at altitude, compared to sea level (here intensity is defined as speed of movement, not percentage of max heart rate). Interestingly, recent research suggests that altitude’s slowing effects may begin to show up at elevations of only 2000 feet or so, far below the 4000-5000 feet mark which has usually been linked with downgraded performances. Training more slowly is hardly the way to become a better performer

That’s why some high-level athletes (including the Chinese female world-record setters) have utilized the strategy of ‘living high and training low’ spending most of the day at a high-altitude location and then traveling to a lower area for workouts. This can be expensive and inconvenient, of course, and it is seldom really optimal. In a place like Albuquerque, New Mexico, for example, it’s possible to live at about 7500 feet and travel to a training site at 4500-5000 feet in 45 minutes or so, but even the 4500-foot workout would be slower than a sea-level exertion, according to the newest research

That’s were Heikki Rusko comes in again. The wry little Finnish researcher has made some important additions to the field of exercise science in recent years, carrying out lots of good work on overtraining and extra-load conditioning, but his latest work may be the best. In the northern part of Finland, Rusko has put together a ‘high-altitude house’. Special pumps placed in the basement keep the air pressure inside the house at normal levels but mix nitrogen with incoming air. This nitrogen ‘squeezes’ out some of the oxygen which would be normally present. The result? Even though the house is at sea level, the oxygen concentrations inside the dwelling are at only 15.3 per cent, well below the normal 21 per cent, and equivalent to the oxygen pressure at an altitude of around 8200 feet

Outside the house, of course, everything is perfect. Since the location is at sea level, athletes can emerge from the rarefied air inside the house and work out at truly maximal levels if they so desire on the trails, tracks, and roads surrounding the house, something which is quite impossible to do at altitude. Seven Finnish athletes did just that quite recently, living and sleeping for at least 1 18 hours per day inside the house and completing all of their workouts outside in the ‘oxygen soup’ of sea-level air

After just two weeks, the results were astounding. EPO levels in the athletes soared by 84 per cent (EPO is the key chemical which stimulates increased red-blood-cell production in the bone marrow), and 2.3-DPG the compound which makes oxygen more available to the muscles vaulted upward by 15 per cent. After just three to four weeks, red blood cell volume rose by 7 percent. Best of all, many of the athletes experienced dramatic improvements in performance. Meanwhile, other athletes residing in the same sports institute but not living in the high-altitude house experienced no increases in EPO, 2.3DPG, or red-cell volume, and failed to achieve performance breakthroughs

Right now, Rusko’s ‘high house’ is the only one of its kind in the world, and the Finnish scientist is interested in having athletes come to train there

For more information, please contact Heikki K. Rusko, Ph.D., Research Institute for Olympic Sports, Rautpohjankatu 6, Jyvaskyla, Finland 40700 (Telephone 35&41-60372; e-mail HRUSKO@KIHU.JYU. Fl).

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