Achieving Altitude Acclimation Through Intermittent Exposure to Hypoxia

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Biology | Life Sciences


Philip Chu, Biology


Traditionally, training at high altitude has been associated with increased athletic performance. Altitude training increases the efficiency of the oxygen transport and utilization apparatus. By increasing factors like red blood cell mass, diphosphoglycerate levels in red blood cells, and mitochondrial function, an athlete’s VO (2max) can be raised significantly. Despite these advantages, altitude training has drawbacks that can limit its effectiveness. Hypoxia limits aerobic power, which can prevent elite athletes from reaching work rates they could achieve at lower altitudes. This limits training intensity, which in elite athletes can result in detraining. The “live high, train low” strategy is a method for achieving the positive effects of altitude training while eliminating the drawbacks. Using this method, an athlete lives at high altitude and trains low in an oxygen-rich environment. Several studies found that the “live high, train low” strategy yields greater benefits than simple altitude training. For example, Levine and Stray-Gunderson compared “live high, train high” and “live low, train low” groups with a “live high, train low” group. The study found that the latter had significantly greater improvement of VO (2max) and maximal steady state and had the greatest improvement in a 5,000 meter time trial as well. Other factors that increased significantly relative to the low-low group included red blood cell mass and blood volume. Several other studies have yielded similar results. Although it has been proven that living high and training low can significantly affect athletic performance, there is still no accepted minimum time of exposure to hypoxia that will still yield results. Recently, the idea of sleeping high and training low has arisen. Although some studies report significant improvements gained simply by sleeping high, the “sleep high, train low” strategy hasn’t been widely accepted. Altitude chambers have made the “sleep high, train low” strategy more accessible to athletes. Use of altitude chambers allows athletes to sleep “high” while in their home or local training center. This eliminates the tedious logistics of moving up and down a mountain every day, and also allows subjects to sleep at the equivalent of much higher altitudes than those usually available.