COMMENTS ON ALTITUDE
Rushall Thoughts, (1993).
The Smith and Sharkey (1984) paper shows more of the same -- There is no hard evidence of altitude training enhancing sea-level performance in highly trained athletes. I must admit though, I do believe that altitude training can assist throwers, jumpers, and sprinters. The diminished air-resistance and gravitational pull allows performance magnitudes to be practiced that are not possible at sea-level.
Physiologists have long been dazzled by the physiological changes that occur with adaptation to altitude. The circulatory system attempts to compensate for the increased hypoxia by enhancing certain characteristics. Common reasoning asserts that if the characteristics of circulation at altitude are better than those of sea-level, then sea-level performances should be enhanced. There are serious flaws in such an argument. Firstly, circulation is not a limiting factor in endurance performance. Even if there is an "improvement," it is not likely to influence highly trained specific activities. Second, altitude adaptations do not mimic "blood doping" characteristics or effects. Thus, it is erroneous to assert that since there is increased Hb in the body in both cases, performance enhancements will occur. Other moderating variables differentiate between the two physiological aberrations. Third, the major endurance adaptations that occur in training are particularly specific. Those of importance occur in the muscles. Altitude adaptations do not enhance the specific nature of the sea-level endurance trained response. In fact, they actually disrupt that state, particularly in long-distance events (e.g., two miles of running and more).
It has long been recognized that in serious athletes circulatory enhancements developed in one form of exercise rarely, and if then only marginally, influence similar characteristics in other activities. For example, VO2max improvements in cycling do not show any change in VO2max of running. Similarly, VO2max improvements in swimming do not show any change in VO2max in kayaking. It should be noted though, that VO2max improvements in running do "transfer" some effects to more specific activities, such as swimming, kayaking, and cycling, in moderately trained persons. However, with elite athletes, training effects are so specific that there is no carry over of circulatory improvements in one activity to another. Altitude adaptations are similarly specific. There is no justification for asserting that a specific trained state would be enhanced by the foreign altitude stress any more than would be expected from any other stress that produced circulatory adaptations.
The above reasonings are why altitude training is not the beneficial stimulus it is promoted as being. When other confounding factors, for example, greater amounts of recovery and a less complicated and less stressful life-style, enter the altitude training experience, performance at subsequent sea-level events often is improved, but the true value of altitude adaptation is obscured.
The point that seems to be overlooked is that the energy systems used to drive exercise at altitude are different to those used at sea-level. Fiber recruitment is different, what the athlete experiences is different, and the specificity of the training is not appropriate for sea-level competitions. However, since physiology is not that significant for swimming performance (it is much less influential than propelling efficiency/technique), good technicians at altitude will be less apt technicians at sea-level because their techniques will be "powered" by different sets of muscle fibers in each environment.
Contrary to popular opinion, physiological parameters do not differentiate performance levels among top swimmers. This myth has been spurred by the belief that the physiological changes that take place at altitude will somehow make athletes superior in endurance performances. Although it would seem logical that some increased aerobic components would increase endurance performance, pure physiological alterations do not transfer to specific combinations of biomechanical, physiological, and psychological factors, that is, specific performance. Performance results support this interpretation. It is further supported by the emerging disenchantment with the benefits of altitude training in endurance athletes who normally compete at sea-level. More and more of them are coming down from the mountains without any detrimental affects on their performances after they have trained at sea-level. This is confirmed by the observations of Bengt Saltin when he studied Kenyan runners. Their great low-altitude runners do not go to altitude to train. They stay at low altitudes and still remain great runners.
Altitude training essentially causes the body to make up for the loss of aerobic energy capacity with anaerobic energy. Since most anaerobic activities are not energy-limited this extra stimulation of anaerobic mechanisms may be a good thing. Altitude training may allow a greater mobilization of anaerobic resources which is not possible at sea-level. Sprint and power athletes may benefit more from altitude training than endurance athletes. It is quizzical as to why "scientists" have only studied endurance performances when the mechanical advantages of reduced air resistance and gravitational pull might facilitate sprint and power activities more than supposed endurance benefits.
This extra anaerobic stimulation is further enhanced under the influence of anabolic steroids which allow even greater amounts of anaerobic work to be performed. Thus, drugs and altitude training may be the cause of the sensational sprint/anaerobic performances of athletes such as the Chinese short-distance swimmers. However, it does not explain the exceptional performances of Chinese distance runners. The mix of drugs and altitude training allows performance improvements to be attributed to altitude. "Benefits" from altitude training are used as an explanation to mask the more insidious chemical enhancement.
The Principle of Specificity is clear -- the atypical altitude energy responses are not conducive to performance improvements other than at similar altitudes.
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