News & Comment / Conference Report


Natalie B Harlan MA

High Altitude Sports Training Complex, Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, Arizona 86011-5769. Email:

Sportscience 3(2),, 1999 (1289 words)

Reviewed by Stephen Seiler PhD, Institute for Sport, Agder College, Kristiansand, Norway


The High Altitude Sports Training Complex's Symposium of Sports Science was instituted in 1998 in an effort to bridge the gap between science and coaching in the field of altitude training. This year's event included presentations on the theory of living high and training low and a pilot study of simulated altitude. The keynote presentation highlighted additional considerations for athletes training at altitude, along with and possible reasons for non-response or negative responses to altitude training. These included unstable health at the start of altitude exposure, too much anaerobic work, and poor nutrition. A printed transcript of the presentations is available. Reprint · Help


KEYWORDS: acclimatization, elite athletes, hypoxia


At our 1999 symposium in February, the High Altitude SportsTraining Complex at Northern Arizona University brought together manyrespected names in the field of exercise science, hypoxia research,and elite coaching. The three-day symposium was filled withback-to-back presentations and plenty of lively discussion, sparkedby four of our better-known participants: Benjamin Levine, associateprofessor of Medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern MedicalCenter and director of the Institute for Exercise and EnvironmentalMedicine at the Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas; John Hellemans,director of the New Zealand Triathlon Academy in Christchurch;Ørjan Madsen, director of the M/G Consulting Corporation inNorway and advisor to Olympiatoppen and the Norwegian SwimmingFederation; and Robert Chapman, head coach of Men’s CrossCountry/Distance at Indiana University.

The goal of the symposium was to maximize the relationship betweenresearch and practical application. Attendees examined thephysiological effects of altitude on athletes and investigated howbest to utilize this form of specialized training to enhancecompetitive performance. A mix of international governing bodyrepresentatives, university faculty and students, physicians, coachesand athletes, all shared their data and theories on altitudetraining. Highlights from three of the presentations are providedhere.

Figure 1: Some of the key speakers at the symposium. From left to right: Dr Orjan Madsen, Dr Jay T Kearney, Dr Benjamin Levine, and Wynn Gmitroski.

Ben Levine presented The Dose-Response Relationship of HighAltitude: A Critical Appraisal of how High to Live and Train. DrLevine addressed acclimatization to high altitude, improvements ofoxygen transport and utilization at the cellular level, and how theseimprovements translate into enhanced endurance performance. He alsoexamined the challenge of predicting which athletes will fare poorlyin higher elevations, and presented strategies to prepare forcompetition at altitude. Dr Levine (along with Dr JimStray-Gundersen) has championed the Live High/Train Low model ofaltitude training and shared details of that pioneering study. Theirdata suggest that the physiological adaptations realized at altitudecan be advantageous to athletes, but high intensity workouts arebetter conducted at lower elevations to achieve improvedperformance.

John Hellemans presented Intermittent Hypoxic Training: A PilotStudy. Dr Hellemans presented data suggesting that a new methodof altitude simulation, employing intermittent (interval) hypoxictraining, may be similar or even superior to conventional altitudetraining. The basic method involved exposing athletes to hypoxic air(9-11% oxygen) intermittently for five-minute intervals alternated bynormoxic air for five-minute intervals, for a total time of one houronce or twice a day for 15-20 days. Dr Hellemans’ resultssuggested an overall improvement in hematological factors related tooxygen transport and performance.

Keynote speaker Ørjan Madsen’s presentation,Hypoxia--The Magic Pill to Enhance Performance in Endurance Sportsin the 21st Century, provided an intriguing and befittingculmination to the symposium. Dr Madsen pointed out several practicalissues to be considered when implementing altitude training.

  • Training at altitude is neither a fast track to better results nor a means that is effective in every circumstance.
  • Altitude training is now practiced as an integrated part of the annual training process in endurance sports, not merely a pre-competition peaking strategy.
  • Altitude training will have a detrimental effect if the athlete is not physically and mentally well prepared and if the training is not well monitored.
  • Physiological parameters to monitor at altitude include (but are not limited to) training volume, training intensity, urea, creatine kinase, hemoglobin, hematocrit, resting pulse, and the subjective feeling of wellness.
  • In elite sports, achieving additional improvement in already highly trained athletes depends on the ability of the coach/athlete to balance training and recuperation. (For an example of a periodized training program at an altitude camp, see Figure 2.)

Figure 2: Dr Madsen's example of periodized training at an altitude camp.

In addition, Dr Madsen proposed several reasons for non-responseor negative response to altitude training: unstable health or lowaerobic performance at the start of the altitude training, too muchanaerobic work, lack of attention to the specific requirements duringthe acclimatization and re-acclimatization phases, insufficientrecuperation between high training loads, and poor nutrition.

Finally, Dr Madsen addressed the challenges facing teams competingat the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic Games. In particular, herecommended that competitors attempt to "identify the individualreduction of performance capacity at the specific altitude ofcompetition, and improve performance at that specific altitude bycarrying out enough altitude training at, and above, thisaltitude."

The symposium included a total of 14 presentations, including thefollowing:

  • Science of Altitude Training and Coaching Applications (Practical recommendations by Ron Mann, NAU Track & Field Head Coach)
  • Altitude Training: Can it Enhance Sea Level Endurance Performance? (A step-by-step analysis of the effect of altitude on an athlete’s body, by Hans Haverkamp, NAU Instructor in Exercise Science)
  • Predicting the Decline in Performance at Altitude (Further details on the study conducted by Ben Levine and Jim Stray-Gundersen, by Dr Rob Chapman, Indiana University Cross Country Head Coach and former colleague of Levine)
  • Does Training the Respiratory Muscles Improve Exercise Performance or Alter the Ventilatory Response to Exercise? (A look at the control of breathing and its effect on exercise performance, by Dr Ralph Fregosi, University of Arizona, Associate Professor in Physiology)
  • Can the High-Low Training Model be Extended via Pulmonary Training? (The role of pulmonary training, by Dr George D Swanson, California State University, Chico, Associate Professor of Exercise Science)
  • Training at Altitude: What Specific Physiological Alterations Occur? (Examination of muscle adaptation, by Dr Stan Lindstedt, NAU Professor of Biology)
  • Applied Science in Triathlon (Sport-specific analysis of triathlon, by George M Dallum, Coach and University of New Mexico PhD candidate in Exercise Science)
  • A Sugar High: Glucose Use and Production at Altitude (A study on adaptation in rats, by Dr Hans Gunderson, NAU Professor of Chemistry)
  • Change of Aerobic Maximal Power and Plasma Aldosterone Concentration During Low Altitude Training and High Altitude Sleeping in Competition Cyclists; Plasma Bicarbonate Differences in Acclimatized Mountaineers vs Newcomers in High Altitude Climbing (Case studies in progress, by Jorge Cajigal, University of Chile MS candidate in Biology of Physiology)
  • Molecular Adaptations of Human Skeletal Muscle after Endurance Training in Hypoxia (Poster Presentation by Michael Vogt, University of Bern MS candidate at the Institute of Anatomy)
  • Improvements in Swim Performance Due to Altitude Training (Poster Presentation by Marta Wlodkowska, NAU MS candidate in Exercise Science and Kelsey Anne Williams, NAU undergraduate in Exercise Science)

To order a copy of the Proceedings, which contains brieftranscriptions of all presentations, please contact the High AltitudeSports Training Complex are now preparing for the 2000 Symposium of Sports Science.Updated information on that event will be posted regularly at thesame address.

Edited by Stephen Seiler PhD.
Webmastered by Matthew S. Kerner PhD.
Published June 1999.