What is it?
Exposure to altitude has been shown to have negative effects on the endurance of football players. This is because activities carried out at altitude have been shown to reduce the amount of ATP1 production due to lower air pressure (Levine, Stray-Gundersen and Mehta, 2008). As a result of this, the air becomes ‘thinner’, leading to difficulties breathing as less oxygen particles are taken in and an increase in heart rate as the body works harder to transport blood to working organs (Wilber, 2011).
Why is this training method used?
Altitude training is used to aid athletes in acclimatisation to help eliminate the signs of attitude sickness. A lack of oxygen at altitude can lead to athletes feeling nauseated, fatigued, disorientated and dizzy. Altitude training aims to prevent severe reactions to the changes in altitude by slowly allowing the athlete to get used to their surroundings and gradually preparing them for an upcoming competition. For matches played at high altitude, Gore, McSharry, Hewitt and Sauders (2008) suggest a week training at a moderate altitude before moving up to a higher altitude prior to the match. Football teams often adopt this approach for tournaments by setting up training camps a few weeks prior. The below video explains the thinking behind Englands u20 football team altitude training before the 2011 World Cup.
Variations and Adaptations
The amount of time taken to acclimatise is often dependent upon the length of the competition or the level of altitude. There are 3 main types of altitude training summarised by Ben Griffen and Michael Chiovitti summarised below:
Live High – Train High
Originally research suggested both training and living should take place at high altitude to best prepare athletes. This however led to athletes experiencing de-training as their recovery was halted due to the lack of oxygen (Levine, 2002). Training high and living high is a precarious balancing act as too long exposed to training in high altitude can result in over-training whereas staying too short in these conditions would be of little benefit whatsoever. The biggest criticism of this method is the inability to replicate the required intensity to improve performance.
Live High – Train Low
Another method of altitude training is to train at sea level but then to rest at altitude. Here the athlete can replicate the required intensity of performance and still acclimatize to higher altitude whilst they sleep. Studies have shown that the beneficial effects of this can last up to 3 weeks post-altitude (Wilber, 2011). Although the running performance increased by only 1% in elite sport that can be the difference between success and failure.
Live Low – Train High
This method, often referred to as Intermittent Hypoxic Training consists of living at low altitude and training at high altitude. This is often the most practical for coaches as they can create a simulated environment via the use of an altitude training chamber which is inexpensive.
This table taken from Levine (2002) shows the change in maximal oxygen uptake under the conditions of the 3 methods mentioned. This highlights how maximal oxygen uptake decreased during low-low training as opposed to high-low and high-high sessions.
Adaptations expected during altitude training are an increase in the blood carrying capacity of the blood and an increase in muscle buffering capacity. This is beneficial for sports which require high intensity running such as football (McLean et al, 2013).
Literature and further research
Evidence of a decrease in performance at altitude this can be found during the FIFA World Cup 2010 in South Africa. Matches were played in altitudes ranging from 0-1753m above sea level. The resultant research into the amount of total distance covered showed a decrease of 3.1% during matches played at 1400m and above (Nassis, 2103). Another study of 1460 matches spanned over 100 years found that in international football; high altitude teams had a significant advantage over low altitude teams at both high and low altitude (McSharry, 2007). This is due to lowland teams struggling to acclimatise to high altitudes which impact their physiological performance.
Currently FIFA2 recommend an acclimatisation period of at least 3 days when playing at an altitude of 1500m or above. This is a short amount of time compared to Gore et al (2008) suggestion of 1-2 weeks of acclimatisation at moderate/high altitudes to overcome acute mountain sickness and partial restore Vo2 max.
Currently there is a lack of research in to the exact time taken to acclimatise due to the difference in individual responses. Individuals have been shown to react differently to given stimulus with some not responding at all. Coaches are therefore required to monitor their athlete’s reactions to training at altitude and be alert for any signs of altitude sickness.
Exposure to altitude has many adverse effects on the health of athletes. Acclimatisation is crucial before competition to enable a team of individual to compete to their potential. Coaches must keep in mind that individuals are different and that training must be specific to their needs.
This article is a brief overview of training at altitude. There are many factors that may alter the effectiveness of altitude training such as the athlete’s diet, fitness levels and the quality of their sleep which require further investigation. Research that has been carried out highlights the improvements made during an acclimatisation period and the recommendation for altitude to take place preseason to prepare footballers for an upcoming campaign (McLean et al, 2013).
- Adenosine Triphosphate – A substance that provides immediate energy to muscle cells. ATP is the main energy source for the majority of cellular functions.
- FIFA – The Fédération Internationale de Football Association, or International Federation of Association Football in English, is the international governing body responsible for organising and promoting tournaments all over the world.
GORE, C. J., MCSHARRY, P. E., HEWITT, A. J., & SAUNDERS, P. U. 2008. Preparation for football competition at moderate to high altitude. Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports, 18(s1), 85-95.
LEVINE, B. D. 2002. Intermittent hypoxic training: fact and fancy. High altitude medicine & biology, 3(2), 177-193.
LEVINE, B. D., STRAY‐GUNDERSEN, J., & MEHTA, R. D. 2008. Effect of altitude on football performance. Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports, 18(s1), 76-84.
MCLEAN, B. D., BUTTIFANT, D., GORE, C. J., WHITE, K., LIESS, C., & KEMP, J. 2013. Physiological and performance responses to a pre-season altitude training camp in elite team sport athletes. Int J Sports Physiol Perform, 8(4), 391-9.
MCSHARRY, P. E. 2007. Altitude and athletic performance: statistical analysis using football results. BMJ, 335(7633), 1278-1281.
NASSIS, G. P. 2013. Effect of altitude on football performance: analysis of the 2010 FIFA World Cup Data. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 27(3), 703-707.
WILBER, R.L. 2011. Application of Altitude/Hypoxic Training By Elite Athletes. Journal of Human Sport & Exercise. 6 (2). 271-287.