Get on the top with high altitude training

Olympic coach and Swans Tech team member Joshua Neuloh talks us through the benefits of Altitude Training for swimmers

Joshua Neuloh

High altitude training has been a major component of many elite swimmers in preparation for World Championships and Olympic Games. Athletes like Michael Phelps (USA) or Kosuke Kitajima (Japan) regular trained more than four times a year at high altitude (6500-9500feet) to increase their aerobic capacity. As most of the coaches see high altitude training only as an opportunity for world-class swimmers, we explore in a more detail the options for new training methods.

There are many different options to experience hypoxic conditions with a training effect. Whereas most European swimmers use the Sierra Nevada Swimming Complex (6900feet) in Spain, where the air pressure is naturally reduced, few athletes make use of training chambers, tents and masks with artificial volume reduction of oxygen. In all cases, the fight for oxygen leads into an adaption, which results in a higher endurance performance at sea level with individual differences.

So far scientific research has not shown a different effect of naturally or simulated high altitude training, although there are individual advantages to athletes in terms of availability and costs.

Whereas this choice is then more depending on the budget, the range of different forms of high altitude training is a decision still to make, as again no scientific research has been carried out on whether the method live high- train low, live high- train high or live low- train high is more effective in the sport of swimming. However, there are a few things here, which can be mentioned regarding the effectiveness of the different methods. Most of the swimmers prefer the live high-train high form in order to experience a constant stimulus to produce more erythrocytes (red blood cells), which ultimate leads to a higher aerobic capacity at sea level. The problem with that is that swimmers can only train up to a certain percentage of their race speed, because the overall stress of high altitude training limits their capacity. This stays in favor of the live high- train low training method. Here, the athlete sleeps at high altitude, which gives him the advantage of an increased hemoglobin (oxygen transport) level, but trains under sea level conditions to be able to work at race speed.

For both forms of high altitude training the following “laws of the game” should be taken into account, although the training structure needs to be very individualized, where experience with the specific swimmer is crucial.

Prior to a high altitude training camp (21-30 days) a long preparation phase takes place, where an essential aerobic foundation is build and ended with a step-test. After this entry test the athlete should rest for 3-4 days (travel), before he starts light aerobic work for 4-6 days at high altitude or in conjunction with sleeping at high altitude.

In the first ⅔ of the high altitude camp the focus should be on aerobic training and short speed bursts, whereas different medical test monitor health condition and training progression. The race pace training starts in the last ⅓ of the camp, which finishes with 2-3 days of aerobic and recovery training. During the adaptation/tapering phase of up to 26 days to the major competition the training is very individualized, although the training stress should be reduced for all swimmers in the first week, as the possibility of infections is increased in that period.

In order to show evidence that the high altitude training has been beneficial, further step-tests up to the competition should be carried out and compared to the entry test.

Whereas this general outline of high altitude training looks uncomplicated, the detail planning and individualization of the training is very complex. Therefore inexperienced coaches should seek the help of experts in this field.

Coaches can see this as an opportunity, however, there is no magic behind it nor an instant increase in performance can be expected. The long term planning and repetition of high altitude training will lead into better performance; the basics of success in swimming.

Joshua Neuloh is a Swans Technical Advisor, and coach to Olympic Swimmers Find more about Joshua here