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!
If you have been around endurance sports for long enough, you’ve definitely heard a coach, a training partner, or a Tour de France broadcaster mention something about red blood cells and how they are important for aerobic exercise. But, what are they, really? And how do they work?
Red blood cells (also called erythrocytes) are miniature concave saucers, and exist in trillions in our blood stream. Their main function is to carry oxygen from the lungs to the working muscles. They are important, because muscles need oxygen to perform aerobic exercise.
Red blood cells move oxygen with the help of haemoglobin, a red protein that gives the cells its colour. Millions of haemoglobin molecules bind, or grab, four oxygen molecules in the blood. Then, the red blood cells shuttle the molecules to working muscles.
Look at it this way: if we are oxygen, red blood cells are public transit. The more shuttles we have, the more efficiently we get to where we want to go.
The more red blood cells we have the more haemoglobin we can carry the more oxygen we can transport to working muscle the better our muscles exercise the slower we tire.
Recap: if you’re an endurance athlete, you want those red blood cells.
But, can we control the amount of red blood cells that we have? Can we train our bodies to make more?
Red blood cell count is in part genetically determined, but yes, it can be manipulated. The body can start producing more red blood cells when exposed to low-oxygen (or hypoxic) conditions. Here is how it works:
Does erythropoietin (or EPO) sound familiar to you? Think of Lance Armstrong confessing to Oprah about illegally using extra doses of it, nearly 10 years ago.
We don’t have to be doping to use EPO: we each have a natural source of this good stuff inside of us. When little oxygen is available in our surroundings, the kidneys secrete EPO, which binds to cells in the bone marrow that produce more red blood cells.
In short: Exposure to a low-oxygen environment can increase red blood cell count, and increasing red blood cell count can improve aerobic performance.
How to increase my own red blood cell count:
It is common practice to train at altitudes of 6,000 to 10,000 feet, in order to increase red blood cell count. Individuals can see an initial spike in red blood cell count as early as 24 to 48 hours after the first training bout at altitude, and tend to see a real change after three weeks to a month of low-oxygen training. That is why it is common to hear of athletes training at altitude for a month, before coming down to race.
How do I know if my red blood cell count is increasing?
A simple blood test can reveal your hematocrit, which is the ratio of your volume of red blood cells to the total volume of your blood. This value can reflect changes in your red blood cell count. We recommend that you regularly monitor your blood profile when training in a low-oxygen environment, so that you can understand how you are responding to the training.
Keep in mind: Before you experiment for yourself, know that changes in red blood cell count might vary with the elevation at which you choose to train, the fitness and training background of athletes, and the person to person variability of EPO production.
The bottom line: If you fancy getting faster, training up high and tapping into your very own natural source of red blood cells (I said natural, Lance) is absolutely worth a try.