Physiological implications of altitude training for endurance performance at sea level: a review

D M Bailey, Bruce Davies

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Acclimatisation to environmental hypoxia initiates a series of metabolic and musculocardio-respiratory adaptations that influence oxygen transport and utilisation, or better still, being born and raised at altitude, is necessary to achieve optimal physical performance at altitude, scientific evidence to support the potentiating effects after return to sea level is at present equivocal. Despite this, elite athletes continue to spend considerable time and resources training at altitude, misled by subjective coaching opinion and the inconclusive findings of a large number of uncontrolled studies. Scientific investigation has focused on the optimisation of the theoretically beneficial aspects of altitude acclimatisation, which include increases in blood haemoglobin concentration, elevated buffering capacity, and improvements in the structural and biochemical properties of skeletal muscle. However, not all aspects of altitude acclimatisation are beneficial; cardiac output and blood flow to skeletal muscles decrease, and preliminary evidence has shown that hypoxia in itself is responsible for a depression of immune function and increased tissue damage mediated by oxidative stress. Future research needs to focus on these less beneficial aspects of altitude training, the implications of which pose a threat to both the fitness and the health of the elite competitor. Paul Bert was the first investigator to show that acclimatisation to a chronically reduced inspiratory partial pressure of oxygen (P1O2) invoked a series of central and peripheral adaptations that served to maintain adequate tissue oxygenation in healthy skeletal muscle, physiological adaptations that have been subsequently implicated in the improvement in exercise performance during altitude acclimatisation. However, it was not until half a century later that scientists suggested that the additive stimulus of environmental hypoxia could potentially compound the normal physiological adaptations to endurance training and accelerate performance improvements after return to sea level. This has stimulated an exponential increase in scientific research, and, since 1984, 22 major reviews have summarised the physiological implications of altitude training for both aerobic and anaerobic performance at altitude and after return to sea level. Of these reviews, only eight have specifically focused on physical performance changes after return to sea level, the most comprehensive of which was recently written by Wolski et al. Few reviews have considered the potentially less favourable physiological responses to moderate altitude exposure, which include decreases in absolute training intensity, decreased plasma volume, depression of haemopoiesis and increased haemolysis, increases in sympathetically mediated glycogen depletion at altitude, and increased respiratory muscle work after return to sea level. In addition, there is a risk of developing more serious medical complications at altitude, which include acute mountain sickness, pulmonary oedema, cardiac arrhythmias, and cerebral hypoxia. The possible implications of changes in immune function at altitude have also been largely ignored, despite accumulating evidence of hypoxia mediated immunosuppression. In general, altitude training has been shown to improve performance at altitude, whereas no unequivocal evidence exists to support the claim that performance at sea level is improved. Table 1 summarises the theoretical advantages and disadvantages of altitude training for sea level performance. This review summarises the physiological rationale for altitude training as a means of enhancing endurance performance after return to sea level. Factors that have been shown to affect the acclimatisation process and the subsequent implications for exercise performance at sea level will also be discussed. Studies were located using five major database searches, which included Medline, Embase, Science Citation Index, Sports Discus, and Sport, in

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)183-90
Number of pages8
JournalBritish Journal of Sports Medicine
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Sep 1997


  • Acclimatization
  • Altitude
  • Altitude Sickness
  • Anaerobic Threshold
  • Arrhythmias, Cardiac
  • Buffers
  • Cardiac Output
  • Environment
  • Glycogen
  • Health Status
  • Heart
  • Hematopoiesis
  • Hemoglobins
  • Hemolysis
  • Humans
  • Hypoxia, Brain
  • Immune Tolerance
  • Muscle, Skeletal
  • Oxidative Stress
  • Oxygen
  • Oxygen Consumption
  • Partial Pressure
  • Physical Education and Training
  • Physical Endurance
  • Physical Fitness
  • Plasma Volume
  • Pulmonary Edema
  • Regional Blood Flow
  • Respiration
  • Respiratory Muscles
  • Sports
  • Work of Breathing


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