Thriving at Altitude, Part 4: Do athletes who live at altitude have an advantage?
Editor’s note: This is part four of a four-part Longevity Project: Thriving at Altitude series that will publish on Mondays through Sept. 30. The series also includes profiles on Routt County locals who are thriving at altitude.
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Through decades of research and training, it’s become pretty clear elite endurance athletes who train at altitude benefit from the trip and perform well when they return to sea level.
As for whether athletes who live and train at altitude long term have an advantage, the answer is a bit more complex.
“We have a distinct advantage when the competitions are over 5,000 feet, whether we race here at 7,000 feet or Aspen at 8,000 feet or so on,” Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club cross country skiing coach Brian Tate said. “If we’re up against athletes from lower elevation, we definitely have a distinct advantage because we know how to pace ourselves without the available oxygen.”
Olympic Nordic combined skier and Steamboat native Taylor Fletcher strongly believes growing up at 6,700 feet has made him a better athlete. That’s one reason he resides in Park City, Utah, which sits at 7,000 feet.
“Growing up (at elevation) has allowed us to become really strong cross country skiers, at least on the Nordic combined team, and be good at endurance sports in general,” he said.
Endurance sports at altitude seems to be where the benefits begin and end, though.
In order to understand the benefits and drawbacks of living and training at altitude long term, one has to know what happens to the body at altitude, which is considered 5,000 feet or higher, according to the Institute for Altitude Medicine at Telluride.
What: Longevity Project: Thriving at Altitude featuring National Geographic explorer Mike Libecki
When: 6 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 3
Where: Strings Music Pavilion, 900 Strings Road
Tickets: Visit steamboatpilot.com/longevitytickets
If an elite athlete who lives at sea level comes to train at altitude for a couple of weeks, their body will undergo a series of changes to compensate for the dispersed oxygen and lower air pressure. They’ll begin by taking more frequent breaths. Reacting to the lower oxygen levels, their kidneys will release a hormone called erythropoietin, or EPO, which encourages the body to produce more red blood cells, therefore increasing the body’s ability to carry more oxygen.
EPO creates such a benefit that athletes will take it, rather than generate it naturally. This is known as blood doping and is banned across all sports by the World Anti-Doping Agency.
An athlete using EPO naturally to increase the blood’s oxygen-carrying ability is completely legal, which is another reason it’s so appealing.
An article by Ben Levine M.D. for the UT Southwestern Medical Center said the natural boost to the muscles from the additional available oxygen can boost an elite athlete’s performance by 1% to 2%.
For elite athletes, 1% could be the difference between standing on the podium or not.
Those living at altitude have a higher oxygen-carrying ability, giving them an innate advantage at altitude over athletes who haven’t acclimated.
They lose that edge at sea level, however.
If an ultra runner who lives in Colorado travels to Boston to compete in a race, their extra red blood cells and familiarity with breathing thin air will make them perform better. However, having more oxygen available will lead the athlete to believe they can go faster than their muscles are capable of.
While they should have a higher endurance than low-altitude dwellers, the athlete will burn out before they can take advantage of it.
“When you go to lower altitudes, you are on fire. You are so fast,” triathlete and Old Town Hot Springs trainer Marietta Roberts said. “Athletes like me, a triathlete, when I go to lower altitudes, because I feel like I’m on fire, I can burn myself out faster as well. It does have a benefit to train at high altitude, but you better know how to level out, not go as hard as you can when you’re at low altitude.”
Elite athletes, like Olympians, have learned how to pace themselves at sea level, but there are some things that practice can’t fix.
“A lot of our European competitors, they grew up at low altitude, and they seem to be faster in the muscles, having more fast-twitch muscles,” Fletcher said. “I think there’s a correlation there that being at sea level allows you to be quicker neuro-muscularly than at high altitude.”
Tate echoed the same sentiment, saying if you were to line up 12 athletes from Vermont and 12 athletes from Colorado, the Colorado athletes would look smaller.
While there has been little research on the topic of skeletal muscle types and changes in humans at altitude, the few studies completed haven’t shown much difference in muscle composition in low altitude natives versus high altitude natives. That being said, the correlation Fletcher and Tate notice could come down to how athletes can train at altitude.
At lower altitudes, with access to more oxygen, endurance athletes can run longer and more frequently without damaging their bodies. With the additional power and volume in their workouts, they become stronger with more fast-twitch muscle fibers.
“We hold back our volume and intensity than if you were training at a lower altitude, where you can get more volume in or time in a session, more days in a week,” Steamboat Springs High School cross country coach Lisa Renee Tumminello said. “It’s a little bit of a mixed bag. They’re able to train more speed and power on a regular basis. They can be more competitive in lower elevation environments if they’re able to put in more time.”
Without as much power and volume in their workouts, high altitude athletes seem to develop more slow-twitch muscles rather than fast-twitch.
With Nordic combined, athletes use both slow-twitch in the cross country portion of their event, but the jumping requires more power and force, which feeds from fast-twitch muscle fibers.
So, whether the competition is at 7,000 feet or 2,000 feet, someone is at a disadvantage, making it difficult to determine who has the ultimate advantage.
Changes in coaching
Coaches and trainers at every level have to consider more factors at elevation, and that slightly alters what workouts they assign their athletes.
The SSWSC takes a few approaches to try to diminish the disadvantages of training at altitude.
“One of our strategies is, when athletes do visit sea level, the East Coast, the Midwest, we encourage more speed development type training,” Tate said. “Shorter, more intense training, so they can get used to moving fast.”
Maintaining a caloric balance and staying on top of nutrition is another tactic in trying to maintain and gain muscle mass to keep up with the faster low altitude athletes.
Additionally, athletes have to focus more on hydration at altitude, as the lungs create moisture of their own to compensate for the dry air. This sucks the water from the body far faster than if an athlete were active at sea level.
According to the Institute for Altitude Medicine at Telluride, people need to drink an additional 1 to 1.5 liters of water at altitude on top of the eight-glass baseline.
“There’s so many factors, especially with young growing athletes and ones that are going through body changes and physical adaptations,” Tumminello said. “At altitude, you have to watch that carefully. You have to watch recovery and balance hydration even more and all those things even more — all those things that young athletes are learning to do.”
Benefits for casual competitors
Only elite endurance athletes end up seeing measurable benefits from altitude training. Casual runners won’t see a difference in their performance at altitude versus sea level. But, there are plenty of other reasons to train at high altitude other than the physiological changes.
In Steamboat, winter athletes are gifted with gorgeous powder for months on end, a privilege others across the country or world don’t have.
“Our season is longer, and we have more opportunities to be on snow. So those sensations, those feelings and that training is very, very beneficial,” Tate said. “The consistency is very good where, in the East or in Europe, you can have a good day followed by rain or temperatures that degrade the snow.”
The flip side of that is Steamboat athletes may get spoiled and have to relearn how to manage mashed potato consistency snow when they travel to lower elevations.
For nonwinter sports athletes, even when there isn’t snow on the ground, the area they are training in is gorgeous. The towering peaks, well-managed public land and clean air are all things to be thankful for while pushing your body on the trail.
“Personally, for me, it makes it a lot easier when you’re in a beautiful surrounding to go out and train and get the job done,” Fletcher said. “That’s one of the biggest things.”
Not everyone can perform at the elite level, but endurance athletes are still performing in rough conditions at altitude, something Tumminello thinks makes them as tough as they come.
“I think athletes that live and train and exist at altitude are super resilient athletes. Especially with altitude comes changing weather and changing weather conditions constantly,” she said. “I think that’s one of the biggest benefits in my mind, besides the physiology, is the mental toughness and grit.”
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