March 28, 2001
Researchers Lower the Bar On High Altitude Exercise
Mexico City to Denvers Mile High Stadium theres
been lots of talk about how high elevation affects athletes.
But researchers at California State University, Sacramento
say declines in exercise performance can hit even closer to
home as low 1,900 feet.
Kinesiology and health science professor Daryl Parker, who
conducted the study with colleague Roberto Quintana, says,
Decreases in exercise performance happen at much lower
levels than had been thought. Previously, endurance experts
believed there is no change in endurance until 5,000 feet
or higher. The lowest altitude where we saw change was 1,900
Their discovery is a first for American researchers and confirms
a recent finding by an Australian who came up with similar
data, using different methodology.
It also has applications beyond the athletic arena. Parker
says the decrease in blood oxygen experienced by people at
high elevations is similar to what pulmonary patients and
people with heart disease experience. By studying how people
respond to altitude, it may be possible to better understand
how disease processes work.
Besides turning conventional wisdom upside down on performance
and altitude, the researchers are challenging another long-held
theory that a persons fitness level alone determines
how they will perform at a high elevation.
It is widely accepted that the amount of decrease in performance
depends on a persons cardiorespiratory fitness. And,
though it may surprise some non-athletes, the expectation
hasnt been that the fitter the person the better theyll
fare. Instead, the research has demonstrated the higher the
fitness level, the more capacity the person loses. But Parker
and Quintana believe that another factor may be involved.
There are two markers for endurance: VO2 max, which
is the maximum amount of oxygen a person can consume in exercise,
and lactate threshold, the highest steady state intensity
a person can maintain for a long time, Parker says.
Generally, Parker says, the more oxygen that a person consumes
meaning a high VO2 max the larger the decrease
in their exercise capacity at altitude. But people who can
maintain a high steady state intensity for a long time
those with a high lactate threshold seem to have less
decline in exercise capacity at altitude.
The finding is big, Parker says since it overturns a previously
held belief among athletes that high fitness was a liability
to high altitude performance because of the resulting increases
in VO2 max.
They used to say, Why train if Im going
to compete at altitude?, he says. Now they
may want to look at ways to train to increase lactate threshold
in order to protect the amount of capacity theyll lose.
The types of training that increase lactate threshold vary
by fitness and activity type, Parker says, but could include
intense intervals of hard exercise, long periods of easy exercise
As for altitude training, For the most part, it doesnt
work, Parker says. Dont train at altitude
if you want to do well at sea level.
And unfortunately for new mountain dwellers, Parker says that
even as they get more adjusted to the elevation, they will
not be able to match what they were able to do at sea level.
Their performance may get better, but their maximal exercise
capacity wont increase.
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