Monday, 17 February 2014

Higher Powers: How Altitude Training Works

Even for the most avid runner, a week of skiing in the French Alps should conjure up images of ankle deep powder snow, miles of untouched piste and cups of steaming hot chocolate.

It should not, by any means, inspire a fear of falling fitness levels due to a week of missed training sessions, cheese and chocolate binges and perhaps one or two après-ski sessions which were not, let’s face it, necessary.

In fact, if you’re preparing for a marathon or a similarly gruelling physical feat, the benefits of an Alpine getaway could actually span far beyond mogle-toned thighs and a sun-kissed complexion. The explanation is a little tricky and technical, but bear with me on this one!

The higher up the mountain you go, the lower the barometric pressure in the atmosphere drops.

What this means in plain English, is that it becomes more difficult for blood cells to bind and carry oxygen to the tissues that make up our organs and muscles. Experts refer to it as a decrease in hemoglobin saturation - or the percentage of hemoglobin molecules able to bind to each oxygen molecule – which in turn inhibits performance, reducing muscular strength, energy and endurance.

Doesn’t sound particularly great, I know, but fear not, for as I have written time and time again, the human body is a remarkable machine and our kidneys are masters of monitoring even the slightest change in chemical composition.

As soon as oxygen delivery falls, specialised cells within the kidney release a substance called erythropoietin which crucially triggers bone marrow to hike production of red blood cells.

This facilitates greater hemoglobin saturation, delivering the necessary amount of oxygen to organs and tissues, enhancing performance, endurance and strength and putting us back on track.

All still sounding a bit technical? What I’m really trying to say is that spending time up a mountain makes our body more efficient.  Mitochondria, the energy source in our cells, become more efficient and studies have also shown that high altitude training can lead to an improvement in the in the ability of muscles to tolerate lactic acid - the byproduct of anaerobic metabolism – too.

It’s no coincidence that 95% of all medalists at the world championships and the Olympic Games since 1968 have either lived or trained at altitude, according to Runner’s World.

So next time you clip into those bindings, strap on your helmet (because I know you wear one!) and soak up the gorgeous view, please take a minute to banish any thoughts of missed training sessions for good. For what altitude alone is doing to your body, is – in my eyes – far more impressive than anything a spinning class, treadmill or energy drink will ever be able to achieve.

Happy skiing!

1 comment:

  1. OOo that's great news for my 2015 plans! I was worried about doing a spring marathon when I had skiing plans thinking that it would be too much out of training.