It takes more than a mask – Part 1: Introduction to Altitude Training

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Altitude training is gaining popularity within the boxing community. Some boxers use hypoxic chambers and some wear ‘altitude training’ masks. Training masks even take centre stage in a Rocky training montage (picture from the ‘Creed’ trailer above).

But what is altitude training? What does it do to your body? How is it beneficial for boxing performance?

If you are a regular to the Boxing Science website, you’ll know that we use the ‘Power Breathe’ tent that simulates hypoxic conditions found at altitude. We don’t do this for show (in a movie trailer). It’s a training tool used with deliberate and systematic practice, not just because it looks good or makes training harder.

Over the next few weeks, Boxing Science will be releasing a series of articles regarding altitude training. First up is Gareth Turner, who shares his knowledge on altitude training acquired from his PhD research at the English Institute of Sport (EIS) and University of Brighton.

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What is altitude training?

Since the early 1970’s, altitude training has been used by endurance athletes and is now common practice for many different types of athletes. Athletes travel to altitude to experience changes in the availability of oxygen and the potentially beneficial effects of what that does to the body.

You might have heard the saying, “the air is thinner at altitude”. When you ascend to higher altitudes there is a drop in air pressure. The air is made of molecules, you can’t see them, but each of which has a weight. The higher you go, the lower the air pressure. That’s because there’s less atmosphere (weight) pressing down on you.

A common misconception is that there’s less oxygen at higher altitudes; yet the percentage of oxygen molecules in the air (20.9%) remains the same, whether you’re on the beach or on top of a mountain. The difference is there’s lower air pressure and pressure is key to getting oxygen into your muscles.

What does this do to my body?

Oxygen is an essential fuel for your muscles. When you’re training on top of a mountain there’s less pressure to force oxygen into muscles. When at altitude, you might start to feel dizzy or light headed and think everyday tasks, as well as training, are more difficult. Even at altitudes as low as 800 m, athletes find exercising harder.


When exercising at altitude there’s a decrease in the amount of oxygen bound to your red blood cells. To combat this, breathing and heart rate increase. As part of long term acclimatisation to altitude, your body will increase the amount of red blood cells in the blood. This increases the amount of oxygen that can be transported around the body. So the primary aim of this type of altitude training is improve the body’s ability to consume, transport and utilise oxygen.

Improved ability to use oxygen is characterised by increased aerobic fitness and a greater aerobic fitness should translate to better performance in the ring.

See how to develop your own conditioning program here

When and how long should altitude training take place?

Successful altitude training camps usually last around 4 weeks at altitudes between 1,800 to 2,500 m.

It’s worth noting that central (heart and lungs) and peripheral (blood and muscular) adaptations occur at different rates and there can be large individual variation in the response to altitude between athletes. This means some athletes respond better to altitude training than others. The duration and height of the training camp play an important role alongside the specific training (continuous, interval, resistance etc.) that is completed whilst you are at altitude,

Timing is also important. Toward the competitive period of an athlete’s season, training at lower altitude might be more appropriate. Some professional soccer and AFL teams have been altitude training as part of their pre-season programme. Emerging evidence points towards improvements in repeated sprint as well as endurance performance – both key components of boxing ability.

Natural altitude training methods

There are three different types of natural altitude training:

  • Live High-Train High (LHTH) involves living and training in a real altitude environment. This elicits maximum exposure to altitude; however, research indicates that sea level performance may not be improved.
  • Live High-Train Low (LHTL) involves living at high altitude and training at low altitude. This enables the athlete to complete quality training sessions at lower altitudes whilst gaining the benefits of living at high altitude.
  • Live Low-Train High (LLTH) would involve living at sea level and training at higher altitudes. This would benefit sports where it’s difficult to live at altitude but specific training sessions can be completed at altitude.

Everest

Each of these methods target a different area of an athlete’s physiology. Understanding the environmental and physiological demands and intended adaptations is crucial. Each type of altitude training may be more appropriate for certain individuals at different times of the season.

Boxers might benefit from LH+TL and LL+TH altitude training. However, it might be difficult to find training venues suitable for LH+TH and the overall quality of the training might be compromised.

With LH+TL a boxer could benefit from living at altitude whilst maintaining training intensity.

With LL+TH coaches could target specific training sessions to be made ‘harder’ by completing them in a hypoxic environment. This might create a good stimulus for training adaptations. But it is important to note that there are risks associated with altitude training and we’d recommend they be undertaken with trained practitioners present.

Summary

In conclusion, altitude makes it harder to exercise because the air pressure is lower than at sea-level.

However, over the time the body adapts, in general by making more red blood cells. It’s this increase in red blood cells that athletes are looking for. When they return to sea level they have a better ability to transport oxygen for muscles to use. This usually results in improvements in aerobic capacity and performance.

If you’re interested in altitude training, boxers (like most) would probably benefit from living at high and training at low altitude. But you’ll need to assess your response and time course of adaptation by using scientific assessments.

CLICK HERE FOR PART TWO…..

In Part Two, our very own Alan Ruddock will be reviewing the effects of altitude tents and how we integrated use of the tent at Sheffield Hallam University for the boxers we train.

Boxing Science is the world’s first website dedicated to sport science research and application in Boxing. We will be providing articles and research in Boxing over various sport science disciplines, including strength and conditioning, physiology, psychology, nutrition and much more.