Ever wondered why the best runners in the world come from places like Ethiopia and Kenya? The biggest reason is because they live at a natural altitude since they are young. Other runners have been trying to compete with them for centuries and they’ve never gotten to that level. I’ve often questioned why India has never tapped and nurtured running talent from regions like Leh and Ladakh. We hear of these children in high towns running to school – their lungs are already accustomed to working at capacity; the stamina is already there. In comparison to those born at sea level, it’s just naturally easier for those born in the mountains.
This is why marathon runners benefit immensely from altitude training. A lot of people come to us 3-4 months before the Mumbai marathon to train. We noticed many people struggle when they reach the first hill at Peddar road. We replicate this on a treadmill, to help runners cross that barrier. Endurance running is purely about fatigue, lactic acid thresholds and lung capacity, which is exactly what simulated altitude-training works on.
Take a long distance runner, for example. He’s probably already running on the road three days a week - I don’t want to put additional pressure on his knees, so ideally I’d get him to cycle or row or use the cross-trainer while in the altitude training chamber. With runners, it’s a lot about increasing their lung capacity. Your lungs are not getting enough oxygen when you’re in the chamber but the minute you’re out, they know what to do. Your lungs can accept only 10% of oxygen, and altitude training helps you become very efficient at that. Another thing we work on with endurance athletes is a lactic acid threshold. Often, lactic acid does not get converted to pyruvic acid as fast as one needs it to, and that’s when athletes hit the proverbial wall. With altitude training, we try to delay that lactic acid threshold so the body gets used to it and the conversion process becomes faster.
When you’re training at altitude, you’re breathing better and burning more fat. Thanks to the low oxygen, different kinds of physiological changes take place in the body and they’re all positive. Other than a slight iron deficiency that can affect women, there are no contraindications. When people complain of headaches, it’s because the simulated environment is dehydrating and simply drinking water can solve that.
The thing is, what you do at altitude for half an hour is equivalent to about 50 minutes at sea level. Also, if you can run/jog outside, you may not be able to jog at low altitude. You may only be able to walk initially. It’s about getting your body used to it as well. Once you get used to working out in a high altitude environment, your body gets better at actually using the oxygen, and this affects how it works as a whole.
Any serious marathoner would find altitude training advantageous to their workout regime. Not only that, it’s a healthy form of exercise that optimises how your body works. In fact, we tried an altitude training session too, you can read more about our experience!
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