What Are the Benefits of High-Density Altitude Training for Elite Marathon Runners?

Altitude training has long been a staple in the training regimes of elite athletes, particularly for those in endurance sports such as marathon running. If you’re familiar with this practice, you’ve probably heard the term "train high, live low." This refers to the idea that athletes can gain substantial performance benefits by training at high altitudes, then returning to sea level for competition. But what is it about altitude training that makes it so effective? And what does the research say about its impact on performance? Let’s delve into this intriguing topic.

Altitude Training and Oxygen Levels

Before we can discuss the benefits of altitude training, it’s important to understand the physiological changes that occur in the body during this kind of exercise. The key factor here is the level of oxygen. The higher the altitude, the less oxygen is available in the air you breathe. Your body has to work harder to deliver the same amount of oxygen to your muscles, which can be a significant challenge for your cardiovascular system.

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Research has shown that spending time in high-altitude conditions can lead to an increase in the volume of your red blood cells, which are responsible for carrying oxygen around your body. This is due to the release of a hormone called erythropoietin, or EPO, which stimulates the production of red blood cells. This adaptation can enhance your body’s oxygen-carrying capacity, and ultimately improve your performance once you return to sea level. source

The Impact on Athletic Performance

So, what does this mean for athletes? For marathon runners, it can translate into significant performance improvements. The increase in red blood cell volume can enhance athletes’ aerobic capacity, or VO2 max, which is a key determinant of endurance performance. This can enable runners to maintain a faster pace for a longer period of time.

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In a study by the American College of Sports Medicine, athletes who spent four weeks training at high altitudes showed a 4.3% improvement in time trial performance upon returning to sea level compared to those who trained only at sea level. source

Moreover, altitude training can also influence other physiological factors relevant to marathon running, like the efficiency of your muscles and how well they can resist fatigue.

The Science Behind the Benefits

Some scholars argue that the benefits of altitude training extend beyond the simple increase in red blood cell volume. They suggest that this form of training can also stimulate other beneficial adaptations in the body.

For instance, training in high-altitude conditions can improve the efficiency of your mitochondria, the little powerhouses in your cells that produce energy. This can boost your muscles’ capacity to utilise oxygen, thereby enhancing your endurance performance. source

Furthermore, altitude training can induce changes in muscle fibre composition. In response to the lack of oxygen, your body can increase the proportion of slow-twitch muscle fibres, which are more resistant to fatigue and better suited for endurance activities. This adaptation can be particularly beneficial for long-distance runners.

Training in Heat and High Altitude

Altitude training alone can have significant benefits for athletes, but some researchers suggest that combining it with heat training might amplify these effects. The notion here is that both high-altitude and hot conditions force your body to adapt to stress, and these adaptations can complement each other.

Training in the heat can increase blood plasma volume, which can improve cardiovascular function and, in turn, athletic performance. When combined with the increase in red blood cell volume induced by altitude training, this could lead to even greater enhancements in oxygen-carrying capacity. source

In addition, heat training can improve your thermoregulation, or your body’s ability to maintain a stable temperature. This is particularly relevant for marathon runners, who often have to compete in hot conditions. Improved thermoregulation can help runners stay cool and perform at their best, even in the heat.

The Right Altitude and Time for Training

While there’s a wealth of evidence supporting the benefits of altitude training, it’s important to note that its effectiveness can depend on various factors, including the altitude at which you train and the duration of your training periods.

Most researchers and coaches recommend training at an altitude of 2,000 to 3,000 meters for optimal results. At this altitude, the oxygen level is low enough to stimulate beneficial adaptations, but not so low that it impairs your ability to train effectively. Training at too high an altitude can lead to altitude sickness, which is not only unpleasant but can also hinder your training progress.

As for the duration, most studies suggest that athletes need to spend at least two to three weeks at high altitude to reap the benefits. However, the optimal time can vary depending on individual factors, so it’s essential to listen to your body and adjust your training plan as needed. source

In summary, altitude training is a powerful tool in the arsenal of elite marathon runners, offering a host of physiological benefits that can translate into performance enhancements. From increased red blood cell production to improved muscle efficiency and even better thermoregulation, these adaptations can give athletes the edge they need to excel in their sport. But like any training technique, it needs to be applied correctly to be truly effective. Always ensure that you approach altitude training with care, listening to your body and making necessary adjustments along the way.

Understanding Altitude Training: The Optimal Strategy for Marathon Runners

Altitude training is more than a trend; it’s a scientifically backed strategy that has been adopted by numerous marathon runners and endurance athletes across the globe. The logic behind this practice lies in the physiological changes that the body undergoes when exposed to high altitude environments. The reduced oxygen levels at high altitudes trigger a series of adaptations in the body, including an increase in the production of red blood cells and the efficiency of mitochondria, which can result in enhanced aerobic performance and muscle endurance.

Research from various studies available on Google Scholar substantiates the favorable impact of altitude training on exercise performance. A study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology highlighted the impact of ‘live high, train low’ strategy on athletes’ performance. Athletes applying this strategy lived at high altitudes, exposing their bodies to lower oxygen levels, but trained at sea level where they could perform high-intensity workouts more effectively. This led to significant improvements in their VO2 max and overall performance source.

An essential aspect to consider in altitude training is the training altitude. The consensus among researchers points to an optimal altitude of 2000 to 3000 meters. At this range, the body can effectively respond to the lower oxygen levels without the risk of altitude sickness. However, individual responses can vary, and athletes should monitor their bodies closely during their high train sessions, adjusting their training program as necessary.

Moreover, the training camp’s duration is a crucial factor in reaping the benefits of altitude training. Studies suggest that a period of two to three weeks is typically needed for the body to undergo significant physiological adaptations source.

The Synergy of Altitude and Heat Training

While altitude training alone can significantly improve a marathon runner’s performance, combining it with heat training may lead to even more impressive results. Training in hot conditions, much like training at high altitudes, forces the body to adapt to stress, resulting in various beneficial adaptations.

One such adaptation is an increase in plasma volume. This increase can enhance cardiovascular function, which plays a crucial role in athletic performance. When heat training is combined with the red blood cell volume expansion caused by altitude training, it can result in a substantial increase in the body’s oxygen-carrying capacity source.

Heat training also augments an athlete’s thermoregulation capabilities, improving their ability to maintain a stable body temperature during exercise. This ability is crucial for marathon runners who often compete in hot conditions. Superior thermoregulation can assist athletes in maintaining their peak performance levels, even under heat stress.


Altitude training, when applied in a structured and personalized manner, can offer a plethora of benefits to elite marathon runners. The adaptations induced by high altitude – such as increased red blood cell production, enhanced mitochondrial efficiency, and changes in muscle fiber composition – can significantly enhance an athlete’s endurance performance. The addition of heat training can further augment these benefits, improving cardiovascular function and thermoregulation.

However, it is important to remember that while the benefits of altitude training are compelling, they are not universal. Individual responses to altitude and heat training can vary greatly. Therefore, each athlete should customize their training strategy, considering factors like the optimal altitude for training, the duration of the training camp and individual physiological responses. Always listen to your body and be prepared to make necessary adjustments to your program to ensure the safest and most effective training experience. As the saying goes, "train smart, not just hard".

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