Saturday, 26 June 2010

Ep 131: The Science of Sport at Altitude

Professor Chris Gore, head of Physiology at the Australian Institute of Sport, has had over 20 years experience in the science of sport at altitude, including the study of the physiological effects of altitude on the body and designing altitude training regimes for athletes.

The effects of altitude have been known for some time, however their effects on sport became prominent during the 1968 Mexico Olympics, which were held at over 2000 metres. At these games, endurance sports suffered whilst records were set in sprint events. Many games in the current 2010 FIFA World Cup are being held at altitude, and all of the highly professional teams have had some form of altitude training before the competition.

I spoke to Chris about the science of sport at altitude, including the physiological effects on the body, the different physics that apply to sports played at altitude, how altitude training works and the ethics of artificial altitude training. Listen to this show here, or press play below - and read on for some more info. This question came in from the guys at Green and Gold Rugby as part of our call for science stories for science week. With the World Cup currently being played at altitude, I thought it best to bring this particular question forward - thanks for the question guys! I will be writing up a more comprehensive story on the topic soon.

Much of the effect of altitude on sport concerns our aerobic performance. As the atmospheric pressure is less at altitude than at sea level, less oxygen is taken into the blood. The maximum capacity of the body to utilise oxygen is known as VO2 max. At altitude, VO2 max decreases, meaning that for every 1000 metres climbed, our aerobic performance (VO2 max) decreases by 7%. For endurance and aerobic events, if you are not acclimatised, your performance will decrease.

The body reacts to the decreased atmospheric pressure by making more red blood cells to help the uptake of oxygen. This is where the benefit of altitude training comes in. If you spend a number of weeks at altitude and then return to sea level, these extra red blood cells could help your aerobic ability on your return. The Live High, Train Low concept has become reasonably well established. What this means is that for most of the day, you live at altitude, but you conduct your training at low altitude. As you are less able to work at high altitude because of your decreased aerobic ability, and hence less able to build strength or work on skills, training is conducted at low altitude. However, you live most of the time at high altitude in order to increase your VO2 Max.

The second part of the problem is the different physical dynamics that are present at altitude. For ball sports, as the air is thinner, there is less drag and hence balls tend to travel further. There is also less curve on the ball (or swing in cricket) as there is less friction caused by the air. This can mean that skills learnt at sea level are not necessarily attuned to the higher altitudes.

This mix of physiology and physics means that some sports are better performed at high altitudes and others at low altitudes. Foot races up to about 400 metres are faster at high altitudes as these are sprint events where aerobic capacity is less important (that is, they are anaerobic sports that don't require much oxygen) and the decreased drag improves the time. Chris Hoy famously attempted to break the World 1 kilometre Cycling sprint time at altitude in Bolivia and Bob Beamon smashed the long jump world record in Mexico, both largely due to decreased drag.

However, sport at altitude is not simply a matter of VO2 max and air friction. More than 200 genes are turned on during hypoxia, which is the condition where the body is deprived of oxygen. The AIS is studying many aspects of the problem including how lactic acid builds up in muscles differently at altitude than at sea level. Studies are also being conducted into the effect of altitude on skills. Chris considers that for a mid altitude of 2500 metres, it takes at least 2 or 3 weeks of acclimatising to be ready to compete, and possibly up to 8 months to be completely adjusted.

High altitude football teams have been found to have an advantage at home, but interestingly, low altitude teams have a similar advantage as it has been found (but not yet explained) that people coming down from altitude can struggle to adjust at sea level, becoming sluggish and lethargic. However, this is only for very high altitudes of 4 - 5 kilometres.

Chris considers that altitude training will only improve your performance by 1 or 2% and only for elite athletes. The effects may last up to 3 weeks but those who have spent a lifetime at altitude may see positive effects for much longer at sea level.

The use of "artificial altitude" - that is, hyperbaric chambers - has been ruled OK by the World Anti-Doping Agency. To hear more on this topic, all the topics mentioned above, and plenty more, tune in here, or press play below:

Here are some videos of the two altitude feats mentioned in the podcast, the Long Jump World Record of Bob Beamon in Mexico, and the attempted 1km Cycling World Record of Chris Hoy in Bolivia:

Bob Beamon:

Chris Hoy:

McSharry, P. (2007). Effect of altitude on physiological performance: a statistical analysis using results of international football games BMJ, 335 (7633), 1278-1281 DOI: 10.1136/bmj.39393.451516.AD

Loland S, & Caplan A (2008). Ethics of technologically constructed hypoxic environments in sport. Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports, 18 Suppl 1, 70-5 PMID: 18665954

Friedmann-Bette B (2008). Classical altitude training. Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports, 18 Suppl 1, 11-20 PMID: 18665948

Levine BD, & Stray-Gundersen J (1997). "Living high-training low": effect of moderate-altitude acclimatization with low-altitude training on performance. Journal of applied physiology (Bethesda, Md. : 1985), 83 (1), 102-12 PMID: 9216951

Bärtsch P, Saltin B, Dvorak J, & Federation Internationale de Football Association (2008). Consensus statement on playing football at different altitude. Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports, 18 Suppl 1, 96-9 PMID: 18665957


  1. Great stuff Westius, I learnt a lot from this one.
    I found the comments on air pressure very interesting, of course there's still 21% oxygen at altitude, cause you're still breathing air!

    As the pressure reduces, the volume of air in a set air-space (ie lungs) would decrease. Is it basically the opposite of the diving theory where every 10m is one atmosphere (1 bar), hence a balloon at 10m will be twice the size on the surface, then twice the size again at 1 bar altitude?

  2. It's similar to diving, although not with those numbers. When you dive, the volume in your lungs decreases because the pressure of the water outside your body increases - so your lungs get squished as it's harder for the air in your lungs to expand against the pressure of the water. Think of pushing a balloon under water - the further down you go, the more pressure the water is putting on the balloon and the smaller it gets - the balloon is like your lungs.

    If you are standing at sea level and start climbing a mountain, the air pressure is getting less. This means that there is less pressure pushing on your body and so your lungs are actually able to expand even further than at sea level. There is probably some limit to this as your body is only a certain size - not sure how much extra expansion you could get.

    As air is gas and water is liquid, the density of air is a lot less than water, so we can't quite map diving to climbing a mountain. If you filled a balloon with air and started climbing a mountain, the pressure at ~5500m is half what it is at sea level, but because temperature also plays a part (and temperature also decreases with altitude), the height at which the balloon is double in size is about 6750 metres (if I've done the sums correctly - more here:

  3. So is the bottom line, if you're going to train at high altitudes (or use a chamber) inorder to achieve a 1% improvement, be sure it's not TOO high or you'll actually perform WORSE when you return to sea level.

    But after 2 weeks at sea level, your body returns to normal anyways, so it doesn't matter.

    Kinda sounds like all of this is much to do about nothing... plus it sounds like 'train at sea level, live in the mountains' is opposite of what athletes are brainwashed to do!