The Benefits of High Altitude Training

Written by 
  • Font Size

High Altitude training is not a new method – I’m sure you’ve heard about it many times before. Many athletes from a wide variety of sports (boxing, track & field, rowing etc.) base their pre-competition training camps in high-altitude locations like Big Bear California, Denver Colorado, or Albuquerque New Mexico. While you might have a general understanding of why they do this, I’m here to help you understand a bit of the science of how training at altitude can benefit performance.

The theory of high-altitude training started back in the 1968 Olympics, held in Mexico City, Mexico, which has an elevation of 7,349 feet above sea level. During these games, there was a significant drop off in endurance athlete’s performance times. It was speculated that this might occur before the games but not to the extent that was observed. Athletes who came from areas of higher altitude performed much better than athletes who came from areas closer to sea level. This sparked the research and development of high-altitude training.

At high-altitude, the air is much thinner and the oxygen content in the air is dramatically lower. When athletes first start training at these high altitudes, they notice of a number of immediate challenges including shortness of breath and rapid onset of muscle burn caused from increased acidity levels. However, if the athlete continues to train at high altitude, they will experience a number of physiological adaptations to overcome the environmental challenges. The primary adaptations to high-altitude training athletes experience include:


  1. Increased Red Blood Cell count (delivers oxygen in blood)
  2. Increased formation of hemoglobin (the oxygen binding part of red blood cells)
  3. Increased ability of oxygen uptake in the lungs
  4. Increased blood vessel density around muscles to deliver oxygen and remove waste products


The end result of these physiological adaptations is that the athlete can now deliver more oxygen to the working muscles and remove waste products more effectively and efficiently than before, resulting in improved performance. Once the athlete returns to lower elevation, they can now perform at a much higher level than they could before.

In order for these high altitude adaptations to occur, research has shown that the athlete has to train at a minimum elevation of 5,000 feet above sea level for at least 4 weeks. However, the physiological adaptations they gain can be lost in just 2-4 weeks once returning to lower elevation, which is why most athletes that use the high-altitude training method incorporate it just before a major competition, in order to realize the maximum benefit.


So it looks like our Rocky knew what exactly he was doing when he took his boxing camp to the mountains of Siberia and trained in deep snow to defeat Russian giant Ivan Drago. For more information on high altitude training, I suggest you read the book Altitude training and Athletic Performance, available to order online at Human Kinetics