The Down Side of Gettin’ High

Posted by Filed Under: Health & Fitness, Science and Research

coach-tammythumbnail.pngCome on, admit it. Even if you haven’t done it before, you’ve wanted to. Everyone else is doing it. I’m talking, of course, about high altitude training. What did you think I was talking about?!

Yes, train high, race low (or more accurately: live high, train low, race lower); every endurance athlete has dreamt of it at one time or another. If only we had the time off work, and the money for travel, we’d spend our base season training in the Rocky Mountains, then return to sea level and dominate every race we entered. There would be no stopping us! But while the benefits of high altitude are well-known, there are a few adverse effects that are lesser-known, and could sabotage your entire season.

Climbing to altitudes greater than 2700 m have been shown to result in a 30-40 percent decrease in energy intake due to appetite suppression (Vats et al., 2004). At the same time, your resting metabolic rate is increased up to 25 percent, with a greater reliance on glucose for fuel (Burke & Deakin, 2006). So here you are with greater energy needs at rest, taking in less energy than you normally would, and what do you do? You train, of course.

High altitude training camps are all the rage, and athletes use them as a chance to get in some high volume training, and drop those last few pounds of fat prior to competition. Unfortunately, studies show that weight lost during acute altitude exposure is two-thirds non-fat mass; that means muscle (Vats et al.). A loss of muscle will do little to improve your performance, and will most likely have a detrimental effect on your performance.

Another unfortunate side effect of greater energy demand coupled with lesser energy intake is a strong hit to the immune system. Depletion of glycogen results in the use of protein as fuel. Since protein is not really stored in the body, this protein comes from functional sources such as skeletal muscle and immune cells. Nothing will sideline your goals faster than illness that keeps you from training.

So go ahead, get high, but do so armed with this knowledge: Eat more, not less, of a diet rich in carbohydrate to meet the demands of your training, while maintaining your health and fitness!

Happy Training!

1.Vats, P. et al. (2004). Leptin May Not Be Responsible for High Altitude Anorexia.
High Altitude Medicine & Biology. 5, 90-92.

2.Burke L & Deakin V (2006). Clinical Sports Nutrition (3rd ed.). Australia: McGraw-Hill.

  1. 21stCenturyMom on April 23rd at 10:20 am

    And then there is the altitude sickness (for me). Maybe I should have taken a can of Pringles, the preferred food of mountain climbers the world over.

  2. Blaine Moore (Run to Win) on April 23rd at 12:48 pm

    Great advice; I hadn’t thought through the appetite suppression piece before, having not really had experience with it. Heheh.