In today’s highly-developed world, gaining a competitive edge is more difficult than ever. Speed suits for swimmers, carbon fibre soles in running shoes, and aerodynamic helmets and bikes have become more and more available to recreational athletes looking to up their game. However, as fun and cool as these tech trends are, they don’t actually change the most important thing – your own personal human engine.
Within the millions of blood vessels in your body travel red blood cells, called erythrocytes. The role of these erythrocytes is to transport highly-coveted oxygen to tissues in order to power your body. If you decide to train for a marathon and get going on a training program, the body begins to produce more and more red blood cells over the weeks to be able to deliver more oxygen to starving muscles that are working harder and longer than in previous weeks. This is a normal response to training and one of the reasons why a long run weekly is very important! The quality of the red blood cells also begins to improve as each blood cell becomes larger and able to carry more oxygen molecules. You can notice these changes during a training program as distances that once would make you feel tired and out of breath become easier and less effortful.
The body is very smart and very insightful. In circumstances where oxygen is harder to come by, it will quickly realize that this special and limited resource needs to be used as effectively and as efficiently as possible. Studies have shown that at altitudes of 2100m and up, the number of blood cells in the bloodstream is higher, and size of red blood cells are bigger. In most basic terms – you can go harder and longer with the same amount of effort.
Now, because the body is so smart (and also lazy), the timing and consistency of training at altitude becomes important. Effects on blood cells can begin as early as 2 hours of exposure, and get better and better with time. If you’ve got a race coming up in a few months, you’ll want to spend about 24 hours total at altitude prior to in order to begin to see tangible changes. If you’ve really got your eye on the prize, the more hours that you can train, the better! Studies have shown that red blood cells increase in size after every 100 hours of altitude training.
Who can benefit from training high in the sky? Well, if you’ve picked a race that is taking place above sea-level, you are absolutely going to want to prep for it by getting yourself acclimatized. Even the most well-rounded training program done at sea level will lend itself to a sub-par race at altitude as the body will be starved for oxygen that isn’t available. Not to mention, it’ll feel fairly awful. Second, even if you don’t have anything high in the sky coming up, you’ll be able to truly maximize your training and body adaptations by getting into the chamber even once per week. More blood cells = more oxygen = more work with less effort. Hello PB!