Altitude training: Does it work?

Originally Published: August 11, 2006
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Dear Alice,

Does hypoxic training work? How about other advances in altitude or simulated altitude training?


Dear Interested,

Hypoxic training is a method of training that reduces the availability of oxygen to the body. Some people, including many athletes, believe that it can lead to physiological changes that allow the blood to carry more oxygen and thereby improve physical endurance.

The question is: does this theory hold water? Because of the inconclusive nature of the studies done so far, the answer to that question is still up in the air. What researchers do know is that constant exposure to low levels of oxygen can do more harm than good to the body. It can cause chronic stress, detraining, and edema (fluid buildup in the lungs and brain). In some cases, blood can thicken too much, raising the risk of death due to blood clotting.

Some athletes, however, have found that intermittent hypoxic training in combination with regular training has improved their level of performance. Others feel that sleeping or living at high altitudes (or simulated high-altitude environments) and training at low altitudes increases their endurance. This is known as the LHTL (Live High Train Low) method and is supposed to counteract the effects of detraining while enhancing performance by an average of 2 to 3 percent.

Heading for the hills is not the only way to achieve the effects of hypoxic training. As you mentioned, there are now many ways to simulate high altitude training, such as breathing intermittently with a nitrogen mask, sleeping in a nitrogen tent, living or sleeping in a barometric chamber, and living in a nitrogen house. Nitrogen replaces a proportion of the oxygen in the air in many of these methods, leading to oxygen deprivation and therefore creating a hypoxic environment. However, all of these tools come with disadvantages and may not work for everyone, so it's best to speak with a health care provider if you are thinking of using them.