What Are the Implications of Altitude Variation for Marathon Training?

March 19, 2024

The term "altitude training" might sound like a niche concept to the uninitiated. Yet, it has gradually permeated the realm of mainstream sports. From professional football teams to Olympic athletes, altitude training is now an integral part of their training regimens. But why? What do these high-elevation practices offer? Moreover, what are the implications for marathon runners? This article will delve into the impact of altitude variation on marathon training. We’ll explore how this training approach can influence running performance, oxygen uptake, muscle physiology, and blood parameters.

The Mechanics of Altitude Training

Before we examine the effects of altitude on marathon training, it is crucial to understand the mechanics of this process. Altitude refers to the elevation or distance above the sea level. As the altitude increases, the oxygen availability in the air decreases. This decline in oxygen levels can pose significant challenges to athletes, especially marathon runners.

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Altitude training involves exercising at high elevations to stimulate physiological adaptations that improve athletic performance. Interestingly, the human body has a remarkable ability to adapt to less oxygen-rich environments. When an athlete trains at a high altitude, their body strives to compensate for the low oxygen levels by increasing red blood cell production. This, in turn, enhances oxygen delivery to the muscles.

Altitude Training: A Catalyst for Performance Enhancement

The primary reason athletes turn to altitude training is its potential to enhance performance. Marathon runners, in particular, can reap significant benefits. High altitude stimulates physiological adaptations that can improve both aerobic and anaerobic performance.

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At high elevations, every breath you take contains less oxygen than at sea level. Your body responds by producing more red blood cells to carry oxygen to your muscles. This increased oxygen-carrying capacity can boost endurance and performance, a notable advantage for marathon runners.

Moreover, altitude training can enhance muscle efficiency. With more red blood cells delivering oxygen to your muscles, each muscle fiber can produce more power with each contraction. This translates into faster running speeds at lower perceived effort levels, a critical factor for marathon success.

Altitude training can also improve your body’s ability to handle lactic acid. During exercise, your muscles produce lactic acid as a byproduct. When this substance builds up faster than your body can clear it, you experience fatigue. Training at high altitudes can increase your "lactate threshold," delaying the onset of fatigue and allowing you to maintain a high level of performance longer.

The Interplay of Oxygen and Performance

Oxygen is a key player in the altitude training story. The amount of oxygen in the air dictates how hard your body must work to deliver oxygen to your muscles. At high altitudes, where oxygen is scarce, your body must work harder, prompting it to make beneficial adaptations.

The key to unlocking the power of altitude training lies in understanding your body’s response to oxygen deprivation. When you train at high elevations, your body increases the production of a hormone called erythropoietin (EPO). EPO stimulates your bone marrow to make more red blood cells, which carry oxygen to your muscles. More red blood cells mean more oxygen to your muscles, which can enhance your endurance and performance.

However, it’s important to note that the benefits of altitude training are not immediate. It usually takes about two to three weeks for your body to adapt and produce more red blood cells. But once these adaptations occur, they can have a lasting impact on your performance, even when you return to sea level.

Altitude Training: A Double-Edged Sword?

While altitude training offers significant benefits, it also has potential downsides. Training at high elevities can lead to altitude sickness, marked by symptoms such as headaches, nausea, and dizziness.

Moreover, since the air at high altitudes is thinner, athletes may find it hard to replicate the intensity of their sea-level workouts. This could potentially hinder the development of speed and power.

Another potential downside is the effect of high altitude on muscle mass. Research suggests that spending extended periods at high altitude can lead to muscle wasting, which could interfere with strength and power. Therefore, altitude training programs should be carefully planned and monitored to mitigate these potential drawbacks.

Tailoring Altitude Training for Optimal Results

The goal of altitude training is to stimulate physiological adaptations without causing undue stress on the body. Therefore, the approach should be individualized. The optimal altitude, duration, and intensity of training sessions can vary based on the individual’s fitness level, goals, and how they respond to altitude.

For marathon runners, a common approach is the "live high, train low" strategy. This involves living at high altitudes to stimulate physiological adaptations but performing high-intensity workouts at lower altitudes. This strategy allows athletes to reap the benefits of altitude exposure while maintaining the quality of their training sessions.

In conclusion, altitude training is a complex yet powerful tool that can significantly enhance marathon performance. However, it should be approached with caution due to the potential risks. With proper planning and individualization, altitude training can help marathon runners reach new performance heights.

The Science Behind the ‘Live High, Train Low’ Strategy

The ‘live high, train low’ strategy is one of the most popular and scientifically endorsed approaches to altitude training. This approach allows athletes to enjoy the benefits of altitude-acclimatization while mitigating potential downsides. Let’s explore the science behind this strategy.

Living at high altitudes means exposing the body to an atmosphere with fewer oxygen molecules. As discussed earlier, this exposure stimulates the body to produce more red blood cells to enhance oxygen delivery to the muscles, thereby improving endurance capabilities. This is the ‘live high’ part of the strategy.

Contrarily, training at lower altitudes, where oxygen levels are higher, allows athletes to maintain the intensity of their workouts. Practicing at sea level or near-sea-level altitudes enables athletes to run faster and harder, thereby improving their speed and power. This is the essence of the ‘train low’ part of the strategy.

The ‘live high, train low’ approach seems to offer the best of both worlds – endurance enhancements from living at high altitudes and speed and power improvements from training at sea level. However, implementing this strategy requires careful planning and monitoring. For instance, the optimal altitude for living and training may vary among individuals, and too rapid an ascent to high altitudes can increase the risk of altitude sickness.

The Role of Professional Guidance in Altitude Training

The complex nature of altitude training and the potential risks associated with it underscore the importance of professional guidance. Coaches and sports physiologists play a crucial role in designing and monitoring altitude training programs.

Professional guidance begins with pre-training assessment. Coaches or sports physiologists evaluate an athlete’s fitness level, training history, goals, and response to altitude. Based on this assessment, they determine the optimal altitude for living and training, as well as the duration and intensity of training sessions.

During the training program, professionals monitor the athlete’s response to altitude and adjust the program as needed. They track physiological parameters such as red blood cell count, hemoglobin concentration, and oxygen-carrying capacity. They also monitor the athlete for signs of altitude sickness, muscle wasting, and other potential issues.

Moreover, professionals provide guidance on nutrition and hydration, which are essential for maintaining performance and preventing altitude sickness. They may also help with logistics, such as arranging for suitable accommodation at high altitudes and transportation to training venues at sea level.


In conclusion, altitude training offers an excellent avenue for marathon runners looking to gain a competitive edge. By stimulating physiological adaptations such as increased red blood cell production and enhanced muscle efficiency, this training approach can boost endurance, speed, and power. The ‘live high, train low’ strategy seems particularly promising, as it allows athletes to harness the benefits of altitude exposure while maintaining the intensity of their workouts.

However, altitude training is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Its effectiveness and safety depend on individual factors and proper implementation. Therefore, professional guidance is crucial. With an individualized approach and expert support, marathon runners can leverage altitude training to push their performance to new heights. As altitude training continues to evolve, it will undoubtedly remain a focal point in the quest for marathon excellence.