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Sports Medicine

, Volume 31, Issue 7, pp 533–557 | Cite as

The Effect of Altitude on Cycling Performance

A Challenge to Traditional Concepts
Review Article

Abstract

Acute exposure to moderate altitude is likely to enhance cycling performance on flat terrain because the benefit of reduced aerodynamic drag outweighs the decrease in maximum aerobic power [maximal oxygen uptake (V̇O2max)]. In contrast, when the course is mountainous, cycling performance will be reduced at moderate altitude.

Living and training at altitude, or living in an hypoxic environment (~2500m) but training near sea level, are popular practices among elite cyclists seeking enhanced performance at sea level. In an attempt to confirm or refute the efficacy of these practices, we reviewed studies conducted on highly-trained athletes and, where possible, on elite cyclists. To ensure relevance of the information to the conditions likely to be encountered by cyclists, we concentrated our literature survey on studies that have used 2- to 4-week exposures to moderate altitude (1500 to 3000m). With acclimatisation there is strong evidence of decreased production or increased clearance of lactate in the muscle, moderate evidence of enhanced muscle buffering capacity (βm) and tenuous evidence of improved mechanical efficiency (ME) of cycling.

Our analysis of the relevant literature indicates that, in contrast to the existing paradigm, adaptation to natural or simulated moderate altitude does not stimulate red cell production sufficiently to increase red cell volume (RCV) and haemoglobin mass (Hbmass). Hypoxia does increase serum erthyropoietin levels but the next step in the erythropoietic cascade is not clearly established; there is only weak evidence of an increase in young red blood cells (reticulocytes).Moreover, the collective evidence from studies of highly-trained athletes indicates that adaptation to hypoxia is unlikely to enhance sea level V̇O2max. Such enhancement would be expected if RCV and Hbmass were elevated.

The accumulated results of 5 different research groups that have used controlled study designs indicate that continuous living and training at moderate altitude does not improve sea level performance of high level athletes. However, recent studies from 3 independent laboratories have consistently shown small improvements after living in hypoxia and training near sea level. While other research groups have attributed the improved performance to increased RCV and V̇O2max, we cite evidence that changes at the muscle level (βm and ME) could be the fundamental mechanism. While living at altitude but training near sea level may be optimal for enhancing the performance of competitive cyclists, much further research is required to confirm its benefit. If this benefit does exist, it probably varies between individuals and averages little more than 1%.

Keywords

Endurance Athlete Hypoxic Exposure Normobaric Hypoxia Simulated Altitude Moderate Hypoxia 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

Notes

Acknowledgements

We are especially indebted to our colleagues Dr Michael Ashenden, Dr David Martin, Dr Peter Logan, Dr David Pyne and Robin Parisotto with whom we discussed and developed, over a period of several years, the concepts presented in this manuscript.

The authors would like to express their gratitude to the coaches and athletes who co-operated so willingly in our research into altitude training/hypoxia. Without their support this manuscript would not be possible. These people include: Charlie Walsh, Australian National Cycling Coach and James Victor, Australian Women’s Road Cycling Coach. The advocacy of Neil Craig, Co-ordinator of Sport Sciences for Cycling Australian was instrumental in our successful collaboration with Australia’s elite cyclists. Steve Lawrence, Manager of Sport Sciences at the Western Australian Institute of Sport was kind enough to provide testing facilities and staff for work conducted in Perth, Australia. We are most grateful for the assistance of Dr Arturo Térres, Medical Director at the Carpemor Hospital, Mexico City, for conducting haematological analysis on the blood of Australian cyclists training in Mexico.

The technical support of numerous staff also warrant particular mention. These people include: (at the Australian Institute of Sport) Rob Shugg, Evan Lawton, Robert Spence, Hamilton Lee, Kath Gawthorn, Robyn Power, Melissa Clough, Nicole Horvath, Simone Ransley, Graeme Allbon, Sally Clark, Gary Slater, Tanya Boston, Kim Putland and Maria Brosnan; (at the South Australian Sports Institute) Pitre Bourdon, Tom Stanef, Bernard Savage, Sarah Woolford, Dr Peter Barnes and Sarah Pierce; and (at the Western Australian Institute of Sport) Claire Rechichi and Ted Polglaze.

The financial support for some of the projects described in this manuscript came from 3 primary sources: the Australian Sports Commission, BOC Gases Australia Ltd. and the International Olympic Committee.

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© Adis International Limited 2001

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Australian Institute of SportCanberraAustralia

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