Brain Food: High-Altitude Training

Dec 21, 2017

Flagstaff has long been a destination for elite athletes to train at high altitude. From swimmers at the Wall Aquatic Center to runners on the trails, working out at 7,000 feet can increase oxygen-carrying red blood cells by 4 or 5 percent. Now, new research shows the longer athletes train at high elevation, the better the results. Dan Bergland is a sports physiologist at HYPO2, Flagstaff’s high-altitude training camp. 

Athletes train on the Northern Arizona University campus.
Credit HYPO2

“If they stay 28 days, stay another week, we see a pretty significant jump between 6 and 7 percent. They seem like small percentages but those increases end up being about a one-and-a-half percent increase in performance, which is huge in the elite athlete world,” he says.

Credit HYPO2

According to Bergland, Olympic data shows that since 2004, all U.S. distance-sport athletes who won medals had trained at altitude. He came up with a formula alternating training at high elevation, and then slightly lower.

“Kind of the number we’re looking for, what they consider lower altitude, is below 4,500 feet. So, getting down to Sedona, Cottonwood, Camp Verde achieves that threshold. Optimally, for a high-altitude training camp, you want to be at altitude at least 19 hours during the day,” he says.

Bergland also recommends athletes build their “inspiratory” muscles which help them breathe in, and ingest certain types of nitrates. Research has found that drinking beet juice, for example, increases the oxygen carrying capacity of red blood cells.