Study raises questions
Monday, 14 May 2012
Categories: News - General
Altitude training may have no benefits
ATHLETES considering high altitude training in an attempt to boost their medal chances at the London Olympics might want to think twice: a recent medical study suggests it doesn't work.
Altitude training has been widely used by athletes in several sports, including the Collingwood Football Club, England soccer team, the US speedskating team, cyclists, swimmers and top-ranked tennis player Novak Djokovic.
Many past studies have shown high altitude training works to increase athletes' endurance and in a recent Swiss study, researchers set out to explain why it does. Instead, they found no evidence that it did.
"I was really surprised and frustrated," said lead author Carsten Lundby of the University of Zurich.
Some scientists say any benefit is probably a placebo effect and say athletes are probably better off sticking to their regular regime before the London Games.
Still, many top coaches are believers and have no plans to change their pre-Olympic training plans.
Ian Stewart, head of endurance running for the British team, said his country's best runners spend up to six months a year at a high altitude.
"We think it's very valuable," Stewart said.
He cited the world championship victories of distance runner Mo Farah and world marathon record holder Paula Radcliffe - both of whom regularly do altitude training - as evidence.
"If I turned to everyone and said they wouldn't be doing altitude training, they would not be very happy," Stewart said.
The World Anti-Doping Agency has previously considered whether to ban altitude training as an illegal performance-enhancing method.
It decided against it, but still forbids the use of simulated altitude devices, like low oxygen tents, within the athletes' village.
Past studies have shown athletes who do altitude training often get a performance edge by increasing the number of red blood cells, which carry oxygen around the body.
But those studies weren't done in top athletes and mostly didn't include a proper control group.
Altitude training typically means living and sleeping at a high altitude, usually at about 2400m but coming down to sea level to train.
Some athletes actually train at a high altitude, but most don't since working out with less oxygen doesn't allow them to get an intense work-out and may hurt their fitness.
The idea is for athletes to get used to breathing in less oxygen while they eat and sleep, but to train normally at sea level.
Still, some scientists said it may be impossible for athletes raised at sea level to duplicate the advantages of growing up in the mountains just by doing regular altitude training.
"Exercise performance has a very strong genetic predisposition," said Damian Bailey, a professor of physiology and biochemistry at the University of Glamorgan in Wales, who was not linked to Lundby's research.
"There's only so much we can do to push things on the physical side," he said.
Especially when compared to athletes descended from people who have lived for centuries at high altitudes - like many of the world's top distance runners, who come from Kenya and Ethiopia.
In the recent study, researchers in Switzerland analysed the performances of 16 elite cyclists at a French ski resort.
Half of the athletes spent 16 hours a day in rooms that simulated oxygen levels at 3,000m while the other half spent their time in rooms with normal sea-level air. Both groups trained at sea level.
Lundby and colleagues found no proof athletes at the simulated higher altitude performed any better than those at sea level.
The scientists also took muscle samples afterwards but didn't find anything to suggest the athletes at altitude were using energy more efficiently.
The research was published in the Journal of Applied Physiology last October and similar papers, some by Lundby, will soon be released in other journals.
Lundby said his other studies focus on things like blood changes and sprint performance by the 16 cyclists, and also failed to find they were getting any benefit from altitude training.
Lundby suspects elite athletes in endurance sports already have a very high level of red blood cells.
"There's a ceiling somehow and if you already have a very high red blood cell mass, you cannot increase it any more by doing altitude training," he said.
Bailey said there might be a natural limit on how much oxygen the body can process.
"Too much oxygen can be poisonous, so limiting how much oxygen we can use could be an evolutionary development to protect us from taking in too much," he said.
Still, not all scientists were swayed by Lundby's research.
"It has been documented that athletes increase their oxygen uptake and performance after altitude training," said Dr. Benjamin Levine, an exercise specialist and cardiology professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Centre.
"This is a cautionary tale that there are no guarantees for altitude training," he said. "But it doesn't mean that it doesn't work."
Lundby said altitude training probably did have advantages, even if they weren't scientific.
"If an athlete finds altitude training works and they feel stronger afterwards, then they should do it," he said. "Even if it's a placebo effect, they probably won't care as long as they race faster."
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