What Is the Effect of High-Altitude Training on Endurance Runners’ Oxygen Efficiency?

Altitude training has long been a staple for endurance athletes, particularly runners, striving for optimal performance. The potential benefits of high-altitude training on athletes’ oxygen efficiency – the ability to use available oxygen effectively during exercise – have been the subject of much scholarly debate. This article delves into this topic, offering insights supported by reliable sources such as PubMed and Google Scholar. We will also explore the role of hypoxia and the body’s response to low oxygen levels.

Understanding Altitude Training

Exercising at high altitudes, where the oxygen level is low, can increase an athlete’s endurance and performance at sea level. This phenomenon is the fundamental basis of high-altitude training. When the body is exposed to high altitudes and experiences hypoxia (lack of oxygen), it reacts by producing more EPO (erythropoietin). This hormone stimulates the production of red blood cells that carry oxygen in the bloodstream, thereby improving the body’s oxygen-carrying capacity.

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A study published in the PubMed doi:10.1123/ijspp.2016-0099 documents the positive effects of high-altitude training on athletes. Google Scholar also features numerous studies discussing the benefits and mechanisms of altitude training.

The Role of Hypoxia in Altitude Training

Hypoxic training, or training under low oxygen conditions akin to those found at high altitudes, is considered a crucial aspect of altitude training. This condition forces the body to adapt to the reduced oxygen supply, leading to enhanced oxygen efficiency once the athlete returns to sea level.

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The primary adaptation to hypoxia is the production of more red blood cells and hemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen. This increase can improve the delivery and utilization of oxygen in the muscles during exercise, potentially enhancing endurance and performance.

A study indexed on PubMed doi:10.1152/japplphysiol.00973.2006 provides evidence supporting the beneficial effects of hypoxic training on athletes’ performance. Additional scholarly articles on Google Scholar corroborate these findings.

EPO: The Key Player in Altitude Adaptation

EPO, short for erythropoietin, is a hormone produced primarily in the kidneys. It plays a critical role in the body’s adaptation to high altitudes. When the oxygen level drops, the production of EPO increases. EPO, in turn, stimulates the bone marrow to produce more red blood cells.

This increase in red blood cells improves the body’s oxygen-carrying capacity, enhancing oxygen delivery and utilization during exercise. Therefore, EPO can be considered a central player in the beneficial effects of altitude training on endurance and performance.

A PubMed study doi:10.1152/japplphysiol.00779.2008 discusses the role of EPO in the body’s response to high altitudes. Further readings on Google Scholar also elaborate on this topic.

High-Altitude Training: Is it for Everyone?

High-altitude training is not for everyone. It requires careful planning and supervision to mitigate potential risks, such as altitude sickness, which can occur due to rapid exposure to high altitudes. Altitude sickness symptoms include headaches, nausea, and dizziness, and in severe cases, it can be life-threatening.

Moreover, athletes may respond differently to altitude training. Some may experience significant improvements in performance, while others may see little to no benefit. Therefore, it’s crucial for athletes to consult with a trained professional before embarking on altitude training.

PubMed has multiple articles addressing the potential risks and benefits of high-altitude training, such as doi:10.1113/JP273377, and Google Scholar offers further readings on the subject.

Utilizing Low-Level Altitude Training: A Viable Alternative

For those unable to train at high altitudes, low-level altitude training can be a viable alternative. This method involves exercising at relatively lower altitudes but for a longer duration. The aim is to stimulate the body’s response to hypoxia and increase its oxygen-carrying capacity.

Low-level altitude training can be as effective as high-altitude training for improving endurance and performance. However, the benefits may take longer to manifest, as the body reacts slower to the gradual decrease in oxygen concentration.

A study indexed on PubMed doi:10.1152/japplphysiol.00973.2006 offers insight into the benefits of low-level altitude training. Further information can also be found on Google Scholar.

The Science Behind "Live High, Train Low" Strategy

The "Live High, Train Low" strategy is a popular concept in altitude training, and it has been gaining traction in the sports world. This strategy involves living at high altitudes to reap the benefits of increased EPO and red blood cell production but training at lower altitudes to avoid the decrease in training intensity that can result from the reduced oxygen availability at high altitudes.

The rationale behind this approach is that, while living at high altitude can stimulate physiological adaptations to improve oxygen efficiency, training at high altitude can be detrimental. This is because the reduced oxygen availability can limit the intensity of workouts, potentially leading to decreases in both aerobic capacity and exercise performance.

Stray Gundersen, a well-known proponent of the "Live High, Train Low" strategy, has conducted studies suggesting that this approach can lead to significant improvements in sea-level performance in trained athletes. These findings have been published in reputable journals and can be accessed through PubMed doi:10.1152/japplphysiol.01055.2006. More articles discussing this strategy can be found through Google Scholar.


In conclusion, altitude training can significantly improve endurance runners’ oxygen efficiency. This is primarily achieved through the body’s adaptation to low oxygen levels at high altitudes, leading to the increased production of EPO and red blood cells. The "Live High, Train Low" strategy, in particular, seems promising in maximizing the benefits of altitude training without compromising training intensity.

However, it’s essential to note that altitude training is not for everyone. Potential risks, such as altitude sickness, must be mitigated, and individual responses can vary. Furthermore, for those unable to undertake high-altitude training, low-level altitude training can be a viable alternative, although the benefits may take longer to manifest.

The body of research on altitude training is growing, with numerous studies available on PubMed and Google Scholar. As we continue to delve into this fascinating topic, we can better understand and harness the power of altitude training to improve athletic performance.

Altitude training is indeed a powerful tool in an athlete’s arsenal, but like all tools, it should be used wisely and appropriately. Athletes considering this form of training should consult with trained professionals to ensure they’re embarking on the path best suited to their unique needs and goals.

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