What Are the Pros and Cons of Altitude Training for Middle-Distance Runners?

April 16, 2024

Altitude training is a technique employed by athletes across various sports, including middle-distance runners, to boost their performance. This training method involves living and/or training at high altitudes, where oxygen levels are lower, to stimulate the body’s production of red blood cells. The imminent question is, what benefits and drawbacks does this training method bring to middle-distance runners? In this article, we shall delve into the intricacies of altitude training, providing you with a detailed understanding of the pros and cons of this training method.

The Science Behind Altitude Training

Before we explore the pros and cons of altitude training, it is important to grasp the science that underpins this training method. The air at high altitudes is characterized by lower levels of oxygen, a scenario that forces the body to adapt. This type of environment puts stress on the body, necessitating the production of more red blood cells to cater to the reduced oxygen supply. When athletes return to sea-level competitions, they enjoy a performance boost due to the increased oxygen-carrying capacity of their blood.

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Pros of Altitude Training

The benefits of altitude training for middle-distance runners are anchored on physiological changes induced by reduced oxygen levels at high altitudes. These changes often result in enhanced athletic performance, especially when runners return to compete at sea level.

Enhanced Oxygen-Carrying Capacity

Perhaps the most significant advantage of altitude training is the increased oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood. With the increased production of red blood cells, there is an improved oxygen supply to the muscles during exercise, leading to enhanced endurance and performance.

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Boosted VO2 Max

VO2 Max, the maximum amount of oxygen an individual can utilize during intense exercise, is another aspect that altitude training positively impacts. Training at high altitudes boosts VO2 Max, which subsequently translates to improved exercise efficiency and performance.

Improved Muscle Efficiency

Altitude training can lead to improved muscle efficiency. When training in high altitudes, the body learns to make do with less oxygen, leading to increased efficiency of the muscles. Upon returning to lower altitudes, this efficiency remains, allowing athletes to perform better with the same or less effort.

Cons of Altitude Training

As with any training method, altitude training is not devoid of drawbacks. It is important to be aware of these so as to tailor your training regime appropriately.

Acclimatization Issues

One major drawback of training at high elevations is the body’s initial reaction to the scarcity of oxygen. During the initial days or weeks at high altitude, athletes may experience symptoms such as dizziness, headaches, shortness of breath, and insomnia. These can significantly hamper training during this period.

Decreased Training Intensity

Another con of altitude training is the decreased training intensity that often accompanies it. Due to the scarcity of oxygen, athletes may find it hard to maintain their usual training intensity. This can result in a reduction in speed and power output.

Deteriorated Performance Upon Return to Low Altitudes

If not properly managed, there could be a deterioration in performance when athletes return to lower altitudes. The body may struggle to adapt to the sudden abundance of oxygen, causing performance dips.

Striking A Balance: The Concept of ‘Live High, Train Low’

In response to the drawbacks of altitude training, sports scientists have developed the ‘Live High, Train Low’ model. This model combines the benefits of altitude living (increased red blood cell production) with the advantages of sea-level training (ability to maintain high-intensity training). Athletes live at high altitudes but travel to lower elevations for their training sessions.

Altitude training can offer significant benefits to middle-distance runners, enhancing their endurance and overall performance. However, it is crucial to be aware of the potential drawbacks and to use strategies like the ‘Live High, Train Low’ approach to maximize the benefits while minimizing the negative effects.

Altitude Training’s Influence on Heart Rate and Lactate Threshold

One of the important physiological aspects altitude training influences is the heart rate. Training at high altitudes impacts how the heart functions. The body responds to the low oxygen conditions by increasing the heart rate, even at rest, to try and deliver more oxygen to the tissues. This increased heart rate can work to an athlete’s advantage when they return to sea level, as the heart becomes more efficient, pumping more blood per beat.

High altitude training also plays a role in shifting the lactate threshold – the exercise intensity at which lactic acid begins to accumulate in the blood. When training at high altitudes, the body learns to cope with the accumulation of lactic acid, effectively raising the lactate threshold. This results in improved performance at sea level, as athletes can sustain higher intensities of exercise before fatigue sets in.

However, it is noteworthy that adaptations to heart rate and lactate threshold are not instantaneous. It may take weeks or even months to observe these changes, as the body needs time to adapt to the low oxygen conditions at high altitude. Therefore, athletes must factor in this time when planning their training camp at high altitudes.

Altitude Training: A Google Scholar and PubMed Review

Scientific studies have been conducted to understand the benefits and drawbacks of altitude training. According to an article published in the Journal of Applied Physiology (PMC free), altitude training can enhance performance in middle-distance runners. The article cites increased red blood cell production, boosted VO2 max, and improved lactate threshold as the key benefits.

However, another PubMed article warns about the potential pitfalls of high altitude training. The article points out that the initial acclimatization period can be tough for some athletes, with symptoms like dizziness and insomnia hampering their performance. The article also highlights the possibility of reduced training intensity and potential performance dips upon return to sea level.

The ‘Live High, Train Low’ model is widely recommended in many studies as a way to maximize the benefits of altitude training while minimizing the negatives. But, it’s also noted that the effectiveness of this model may vary among individuals, depending on factors like their physiology, training regimen, and the altitude at which they live and train.


Altitude training possesses a unique set of pros and cons for middle-distance runners. While it can significantly enhance performance by boosting oxygen-carrying capacity, VO2 max, heart rate efficiency, and the lactate threshold, it also poses certain challenges like acclimatization issues, decreased training intensity, and possible performance dip upon return to sea level.

Understanding the science behind altitude training and striking a balance with strategies like the ‘Live High, Train Low’ approach can help athletes glean maximum benefits from their stint at high to moderate altitudes. However, it’s crucial to remember that adaptation to altitude varies among individuals and can take time. Hence, planning an altitude training camp should be done with careful consideration and, preferably, under the guidance of a trained professional.

Altitude training is, without a doubt, a powerful tool in an athlete’s arsenal. When used correctly, it can provide a significant edge in competitions and help athletes push their boundaries of performance.