Altitude training is when you train for prolonged periods in an environment which is low in oxygen. The basic idea, is that it will promote an increase in red blood cells in the body. It has been claimed, when athletes return from altitude training into competition within 10-14 days, they will have a higher concentration of red blood cells, therefore will have a competitive advantage. This is due to being able to use oxygen more efficiently. The training is preferably held over 2400m above sea level, however this is not always possible due to the lack of high altitude training centres. Many performance swimming squads will complete 3-4 weeks of altitude training at certain points within the swimming season.
An altitude tent over a pool can be used to mimic the effects of altitude.
Does it really help?
Several studies have found, altitude training for sea level competition has a positive impact on athletic performance. This however is not reflective of all athletes, some do not show signs of improvement and for some it may even have the opposite effect. The average improvement per athlete in one particular study, was 2-3%.
So, lets say your 200m Freestyle PB is 2:00.00. If you were to improve that time by 3%, that would give you a time of 1:56.40! That’s a very big improvement and doesn’t take into account any other changes, such as technique. This is of course a very general calculation based on a particular study, but it does make you think what improvements there are to be made…
So why don't most coaches and clubs do this?!
It’s expensive! To take a whole swim team away to one of the few ideal locations on the planet is very expensive. That is why it is mainly performance squads, with the top athletes in the sport go away on altitude camps on a regular basis.
That doesn't mean you can’t recreate the same environment at sea level and without the expense.
There are altitude chambers which you can use, which some swimmers (notably - Michael Phelps) slept in overnight to mimic the effects of altitude training. This however is again, expensive.
Alternatively you can get a ‘Bane’ mask to train in during the gym and any land work you do. Much like Katinka Hosszu. (see photo below). But, you may get a few funny looks from other people in the gym…
One easy way to do it, without looking like a villain out of Batman, is to restrict your breathing in the pool. This will therefore starve your body of oxygen and will have a similar effect to training at altitude. This is also known as hypoxic training. It can be done in a variety of interesting ways, the simplest being to add extra fly kicks off the wall and not breathe in and out of the turn. You can also restrict breathing to every 5 strokes instead of 2 on freestyle. You can also swim a variety of sprint/aerobic sessions, with various forms of breath holding throughout. You have to be strict on yourself, as this is a very difficult form of training and it is also very easy to cheat. After several weeks of sticking to the routine (for example 5 fly kicks off every wall), your body will begin to adapt and you may start to feel fitter and able to go harder, for longer. This should be completed with caution, as it can be dangerous if taken to extremes.
Try it for a few weeks and see what the results are. If you have any comments, please leave them below!