Dec | 7
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Brooks Athletes

Why the Pros Train at Altitude

If you follow professional runners on Instagram (yep, that’s us), you might notice a strange migratory effect occurring at various points throughout the year. Photos feature mountain vistas, and, for athletes who train in the United State, places like Colorado Springs, Flagstaff, and Albuquerque. What these cities have in common is that they are all over 5,000 ft. above sea level. At a very basic level, as you go higher and higher above sea level, the less available oxygen there is in the air. So when you’re breathing hard while running, there’s less oxygen getting to your muscles at high altitude than there is at sea level.

In order to make up for that lack, your body creates more red blood cells in order to beef up the system that delivers the oxygen to your cells. This natural process to increase in red blood cell production is what banned substances such as EPO try to recreate.

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WHAT’S THE CATCH?

It might seem like training and living at altitude has no downside, but that’s not exactly true. Even though your body learns to produce more oxygen-carrying red blood cells, performance often suffers during that time as your body struggles to adapt and sustain a full training load with compromised oxygen availability.

The payoff of training at altitude and increasing red blood cell production is especially apparent when athletes go back down to sea level. There, the air is rich with oxygen and for a period of time (about 2-3 weeks), altitude-trained athletes have the extra red blood cells to carry and use a much greater amount of it than before they spent time at altitude, which can lead to increased performance and faster times.

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THE INTANGIBLE BENEFITS

Athletes and coaches often try to coordinate training schedules and racing to derive the greatest physiological benefit from altitude in order to do their best at important races, but there are other benefits to altitude training. Professional teams like the Brooks Beasts often spend 4-6 weeks living and training at altitude not just for the training effect, but also because living in a camp environment without distractions and obligations lets athletes focus on their training, and can foster the camaraderie and friendship that can ease the stress of making a living as a professional athlete.

This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive look at the effects of altitude training, but at the very least it sheds some light on the movements of professionals through their season. It turns out they don’t just head to the mountains for the views, but because what that mountainous air lacks in oxygen, it more than makes up for in potential and promise.

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