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How Does Altitude Training Improve Athletic Performance?

May 07, 2023

Altitude Training is all the rage these days and if you are a serious athlete, I’m sure you have probably heard of it, or are about to!

I did my Oxygen Advantage training with Patrick McKeown, the CO2 guru. Oxygen Advantage is based on Buteyko breathing and has been curated for athletes looking to improve performance. It focuses on something called altitude training.

What is Altitude Training for Athletes?

As you move up in the earth’s atmosphere there is less oxygen, which causes a temporary decrease in blood O2 for people used to living at lower altitudes. I say temporary because the body does adapt, and it is these adaptations that lead to improved athletic performance long term.

So, what kind of adaptations? Well, I am sure you have all heard about the Lance Armstrong/ Tour de France scandal involving blood doping. Blood doping is when you inject extra blood into the working muscles to increase oxygen carrying capacity. This allows the muscles to receive increased levels of oxygen (muscle fuel) and function more optimally.

Blood doping is illegal and, as such, not worth risking your athletic career over. Luckily, altitude training through breathwork is a legal, effective way of enjoying these same benefits.

Strategic Breath Holding in Conjunction with Exercise:

  • Activates the diaphragm
  • Improves respiratory muscle strength
  • Reduces perception of breathlessness and increases upper limit of breathless (ie you can do more before you feel breathless)
  • Disturbs blood gases (lowers O2 and increases CO2) to improve aerobic and anaerobic capacity
  • Generates anaerobic glycolysis (transformation of glucose to lactate) without the need of intense exercise
  • Increases oxygen carrying capacity

So, what does all this mean in practical terms and how effective is altitude training?

As with anything, generalizations have been made. Current studies are indicating an improvement of 1-2%. This doesn’t sound like a lot but you only need to be 1% stronger/ faster than your opponent to win.

I would also say it depends on your starting point. When I was a competitive bodybuilder, I worked with my trainer 5x a week and we trained HARD. I was a bikini competitor which meant I needed to be trim and lean. This involved a lot of intense, weighted cardio, which I HATED, because I always got winded very easily and ended up feeling as if I was going to either puke or hyperventilate or both!

My Experience with Oxygen Advantage Techniques

After I discovered Oxygen Advantage and Buteyko, I started working with nostril breathing and breath holds. It wasn’t easy but my body quickly adapted. I can now do an entire weighted HIIT type workout at max heart rate (over 170) employing ONLY nasal breathing.

Even though I am taking in less O2 (nose holes are smaller than mouth holes) I am expelling less CO2 which means that more O2 is actually being delivered to the cells (look up the Bohr effect). I am breathing more slowly and calmly because my body is used to higher levels of CO2 and my intercostal and diaphragm muscles (muscles of respiration) are stronger and more effective. There are many other physiological benefits but listing them all would just be confusing!

Suffice to say I can now train harder, with more intensity, and I rarely feel suffocated, I can’t even remember the last time I left a workout feeling like I might puke!

I actively train harder, trying to hit my upper limit, but find it very hard to do these days. It is my feeling that my personal gains are well above 2%, but my respiratory efficiency was very low on the outset (fit body does not equal fit respiratory system!) so I had more room for improvement. I see this same pattern in my clients.

Although the practice of altitude training is easy (it’s really just breath holds) DOING it can be a challenge. I for one hate the feeling of suffocation, it elicits an emotional response that is hard to push through. This is why I recommend anyone serious about altitude training hire an OA (Oxygen Advantage) coach to keep them accountable and motivated.

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