By Michael Stott

High Hopes: Altitude Training for Swimmers

Opinion on the benefits of high altitude training is extremely divided. Respected scientists, physiologists, coaches and swimmers respectfully/disrespectfully agree/disagree on altitude training usefulness, physiological effects and individual response. Considerable research, countless papers and hundreds of thousands of observation hours by the brightest coaching minds in the world come to different conclusions.

Reconcile these two items with the statement that follows them:

  • Participants of USA Swimming's National Team Camp went to 13,000 feet in October to participate in leadership and team building.
  • Chad Carvin trained with the Mission Viejo Nadadores in Colorado Springs for nearly three weeks in November and December. Three days later in College Park, Md., unshaved and untapered, he set an American record of 3:42.16 in the 400 meter (sc) free.

And, now, the statement: "Although the field contains many studies, those which are definitive lead to the conclusion that altitude training is not an avenue for enhancing sea-level performances of highly-trained swimmers. The practice of conducting altitude training camps for highly elite swimmers is not justified either on physiological grounds or performance benefits," writes Professor Brent S. Rushall and colleagues at San Diego State University and the University of Canberra in Australia.

Heresy or reality? Opinion on this subject is extremely divided. Yet, thriving businesses on three continents are based on the concept as are training regimens by some of the world's best swimming coaches for their athletes. If ever there were a field for further examination, the effects of altitude on athletic training qualifies to be at the top of the list.

A Little History
The issue first surfaced in the 1960s in reports of European and Russian aerobic research. Those studies were not readily available in the U.S., and it was not until preparations began in earnest for the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City that scientists and coaches even considered the viability and availability of altitude as a training tool.

While three main sites used for 1968 were Northern Arizona University at Flagstaff, Ariz.; Colorado Springs, Colo.; and the Air Force Academy in Boulder, Colo., the prevailing opinion at the time, according to current Air Force Academy (AFA) coach, Alan Arata, was that "it didn't matter."

The aftermath of Mexico City focused on the success of African distance runners. In this country, a lot of literature surfaced "written by apologists for (Mark) Spitz," says the International Swimming Hall of Fame's Preston Levi. Mark Spitz, recently named as Swimming World's top male swimmer of the 20th century, failed to live up to his own loud predictions. Frequently not taken into account was his own work ethic at the time. "Mark's performance was a direct reflection of the amount of effort he put in at Colorado Springs," says his Olympic teammate Mike Burton.

Elsewhere, researchers in the 1970s, particularly in East Germany, pressed on. Gradually, as a result of more investigation, immutable truths began to emerge. To wit: altitude affects physiology, individual response and preparation. Management of the process is critical, especially in the ascent and descent phases. Whether and whom altitude training helps continues today as a lively issue.

The debate starts with the definition of altitude. High altitude is generally accepted as being over 3,000 meters or 9,842 feet (use 3.2808 feet per meter as a conversion factor). With the possible exception of a military base in Quito and a training site in Touluca, Mexico frequently used by the Europeans in the 1980s, no viable swimming training options exist in that range.

Moderate altitude is regarded as 1,800 to 3,000 meters (5,905 to 9,842 feet) with the generally accepted optimum training being 6,000 to 7,500 feet. The problem with going higher than that is that swimmers "can't handle the intensity required," says David Smith, professor of exercise physiology at the University of Calgary and director of sports science for Swimming/Canada. And we all know about intensity, given that "swimming is the most overtrained sport in the world," says Mike Martino, altitude researcher and professor of exercise physiology at Georgia College and State University.

Effects at Altitude
Discussion between coaches and scientists remains calm when the subject comes to physiology. Exposure to altitude has been shown to affect nearly every physiological system in the human body from ventilatory, cardiovascular, circulatory, central nervous, endocrine to muscular response.

Proponents like Jonty Skinner, coach of the U.S. national resident team, cite these givens at altitude:

  • Possible iron supplementation for all athletes;
  • Possible weight loss;
  • Possible testosterone decrease;
  • Likely greater initial effect on sprinters than distance swimmers;
  • Hydration is key.

From a physiological standpoint, the body reacts to altitude with an acute increased ventilation of the lungs, increased hemoglobin and enhanced oxygen extraction by the tissues. Response is immediate upon arrival and varies from three to 21 days based on the level of altitude attained.

Even the NCAA believes swimmer physiology is affected, and, consequently, authorizes cutoff allowances for three categories of altitude: 3,000 to 4,250 feet, 4,250 to 6,500feet and 6,500+ feet.

One reason coaches like altitude training is that lactate and relative intensity levels can be achieved with a lower volume of training. Martino conducted research in 1995 by taking 20 elite age groupers (AAA quality or better) to Ecuador and matching them with a 13-swimmer control group at sea level. Using the same protocols, he observed "altitude training enhanced anaerobic athletic performance upon return to sea level."

Tom Jager, after nine years still the world's fastest human at 50 meters, trained in Albuquerque, N.M. from 1986 to 1994. He believes in the effects of altitude to a certain extent, but not for purely physiological reasons. "The WAC (Western Athletic Conference) theory is you go down late or 21 days in advance." For every big meet, Jager went early. Today, he conducts camps at altitude, principally at one of the country's best sites, Los Alamos (N.M.) Aquatic Center. "The first day we're there, I tell the campers they are in the mountains, but that's the last we mention it."

"It's easier to coach for sprinting," says Jager. "You can do a lot of technique at altitude. The heart rate and breathing capacity are way up, and you can work on specifics and be challenged physically. We do altitude-appropriate work."

Misuse at Altitude
A problem he notes is that "coaches misuse altitude and tend to work kids too hard. They forget that it's 15 to 20 percent harder to do things. Swimmers just can't do the same sets that they do at home (sea level). In fact, altitude takes away the high-end performance workout, those great sets that you can do only once or twice a year."

"The biggest value is the mental toughness it provides," he says. "Altitude messes with your mind. Every workout is hard. My MO is when my body breaks down, I let it. My coach taught me to listen to my body."

Virtually everyone agrees that preparation is critical. "The kids have to be ready mentally to overcome fatigue. That's why I like to work on stroke mechanics," says Jager.

Watch out for hydration and loss of blood serum, says Pierre LaFontaine, head coach of the Phoenix Swim Club. Stable iron levels need to be in place at least two weeks prior to ascent, according to Skinner.

One disciple of altitude training is Sam Kendricks, former assistant under Eddie Reese and Richard Quick, who now manages the Los Alamos Aquatic Center. He had two reasons for trying altitude when he was an age group coach in Arkansas: "I wanted to experiment with it as a good team-building exercise and have a great finish to the season."

After a 12-week preparation period characterized by high-level intensity and high-aerobic work, Kendricks took a group of national and regional swimmers to Los Alamos (7,240 feet) for 10 days. "Just enough," he says. The culture, food and sightseeing dovetailed nicely with the pool work. The kids found it like "breathing through a straw," but returned to exceptional year-ending swims—several of them off the charts—and with lingering training effects for in excess of two months.

Skinner, a South African who was the world's fastest sprinter in 1976, was not aware of altitude training as a competitive athlete, but he's become a believer since. Using the Olympic Training Center (6,100 feet) in Colorado Springs, he regularly entertains swimmers looking for boosts from the rarefied air. One is Josh Davis, co-captain of the U.S. men's national swimming team. Davis adapts quickly, and when he comes down to sea level, he says he "swims like a god."

He sees a positive effect for sprinters in recovery time, but as with the entire phenomenon, management is key. "Some teams come and work in patterns, one, two or three workouts a day. There are a lot of tricks to marrying the process," says Skinner. "It can have significant benefits, but if not done right, you can go down to sea level and look like dog meat."

"I think altitude training is very valuable, very effective and very risky," says Mike Blondal, head coach at the University of Calgary. "It's a fun way to train, but you must be very precise." The risk comes when not knowing swimmers' health, habits, physiology and training cycles.

Individual Response
"The presence of individuality complicates generalizations about the effects of acclimatization," says Rushall. "Responses to altitude are extremely individual, some persons reacting with altitude sickness and acclimatization failure at seemingly low altitudes, while others may not appear to be affected at the same heights.

"It really depends on the person and their physical makeup," says Arata. Bottom line is that some swimmers are likely to benefit, others will not be affected, and others will be harmed by group training camps at altitude," says Rushall.

So, what's a swimmer to do?

World record holder Franziska van Almsick's response is to trust her coach. In November, she completed her sixth altitude training camp since 1992. "I know what high altitude training means, how it affects your blood and the benefits it provides. Everything is a little bit harder at altitude. At night, I sit on the couch. I am so tired, just drained, but I know I've practiced as well as I could. The point is that since I was a young swimmer I have trusted my coach."

Many world-class aquatic powers routinely program altitude components into year-round schedules. Frequency at altitude makes return training trips easier to endure, says van Almsick, and helps her at distances of 200 meters and up. The Germans will go back to altitude in March, then in August prior to Sydney, says head coach, Bernd Henneberg.

The Japanese are firm believers as well, regularly booking NAU's High Altitude Sports Training Complex (HASTC) for three-week stays. Osamu Gushi, head of the Nippon Sports Institute has conducted seven camps, five at Northern Arizona and two at Los Alamos. In 2000, he'll be back with teams for his eighth.

Gushi trained in Los Alamos in 1998 and '99 after nine days at the University of Southern California under Mark Schubert. They return to Los Alamos in January. "The time at USC worked out very well in terms of aerobic capacity and adjusting to the time change. After training at USC, all my swimmers were ready for altitude." He notes that while most of his charges have generally experienced three-to-four-week positive effects, others have had boosts lasting more than half-a-year.

For better or worse, blind faith also has a vote. The record books are rife with names of athletes who have had "kick-butt" results following time at altitude. German swimmer Antje Buschschulte won four German titles and European championships after a camp in Mexico City.

Burton attributed his two golds in Mexico City in 1968 to the 40 days spent in Colorado Springs (and above at the Air Force Academy). So does his Olympic coach, George Haines: "There is no question it helped our distance guys."

Can you say "psychological?"

"I can quantify the physiological, but a good part of it was psychological," says Kendricks. Burton agrees that the chief value of altitude lay in the psychological component. "The physiological and psychological work together," says Captain Howard T. Clark, an air transport pilot who swam for four years at the Air Force Academy.

"A lot of it is just part of the process. We were told all the time about the benefits of altitude training. If you believe in it, it's there. I always felt it was to my advantage to come down and compete at sea level, though I never saw a marked improvement in my times."

LaFontaine admits to not having done enough altitude work to have conclusive scientific proof, but he's aware of the swimmer psyche. "As a coach, I sure tell them there's an advantage because they've trained harder than anyone else. Any edge is a good edge. If you believe, you can achieve."

Who Benefits Most?
Do sprinters or distance people get more benefit? Sprinters experience an initial eight percent negative effect going up, distance swimmers more like three, according to Skinner. "You'd think a distance swimmer would benefit more, but I can't really say," says Skinner noting the lack of published research.

Marathon swimmer and former AFA student and coach, Karen Burton, loved training at altitude and observed that distance people always seemed to get a better "bounce" when coming down to sea level.

Assuming that swimmers do benefit from altitude, an immediate question becomes, "When?" Calgary's Smith believes that the post altitude window is 13 to 28 days with endurance athletes peaking toward the front end and sprinters toward the back.

Smith was part of a staff that took Canadian athletes in 1989 to the Centre National d' Entrainement en Altitude (Font Romeu Odeillo) in France at an altitude of 1,860 meters (5,591 feet.). The team used a training model followed by Zhou Ming, coach of world record holder Le Jingyi. (Zhou was eventually banned for doping his swimmers.)

"It required big mileage and intensity. In 19 days, our swimmers did 210,000 meters." The swimmers trained well until the last week when it became too much, and they got sick, couldn't complete sets and had muscle loss. The team appeared at the Canadian nationals three weeks later and had an "average meet," he says.

The physiologist is candid about the trial. "It doesn't mean that the model wasn't correct. Either our swimmers weren't fit enough going in or didn't have the background to cope with that kind of training." He is also politic and trusts that students of the sport recognize that the genesis of the Chinese model goes back to that developed by the DDR.

A year later when the team went to Los Alamos and applied new learnings, both coaches and swimmers began to understand how to do altitude. "Today, we train at 4,000 feet and haven't gone to altitude in four years, but I'd do it in a flash," he says, citing money (as much as $50,000 for a three-week camp for 40 swimmers) and staff intensity as his primary obstacles.

As a veteran of Flagstaff, Los Alamos, Font Romeu and the Centre d' Alt Rendiment (Sierra Nevada) in Spain, Smith has a good handle on most of the world's best altitude training sites. "You know you've been to altitude at Sierra Nevada," he says. Fifty steps greet and leave all visitors winded on their way to the pool at the 2,320-meter (7,613-foot) center.

Accommodations and training venue are very important, he says. The European venues offer little in the way of diversion and night life, non-training components that rank high with the likes of Franziska van Almsick and, in part, accounts for repeat business at various U.S. sites. It also doesn't hurt that swimmers can eat the food and drink the water, say coaches who favor North does the persistent belief that altitude helps.

Physiologists, particularly in Scandinavia and Japan, are looking at alternate means of inducing altitude. Futoshi Ogita of the National Institute of Fitness and Sports is reporting positive results from a "Live High, Train Low" hypobaric study, where he is simulating conditions of 3,000 meters.

Similarly, Orjan Madsen, director of the M/G Consulting Corporation in Norway and advisor to Olympiatoppen and the Norwegian Swimming Federation, is experimenting with a CAT Hatch, a tent device to assist with altitude training. His keynote presentation, "Hypoxia, the 'Magic Pill' to Enhance Endurance Sports in the 21st Century," given at last year's symposium on altitude and training research at HASTC, is required reading. It is available in reprint form and may obtained through www.

One of the world's interested bystanders is Becki Battista, physiology research assistant at USA Swimming, who is still unconvinced of the value of altitude training. Spoken like a true scientist, she says "I haven't seen enough data yet."

Among physiologists, she is not alone. Strong statements of rebuttal abound in academia. "Many coaches and some sports scientists advocate the value of altitude training, despite a lack of objective evidence. Advocates steadfastly hold to their opinions," says Rushall, despite charges of inadequate control groups, faulty research methods, ad infinitum.

Yes they do. "The discussion just makes physiology that much more fun," says Battista. Meanwhile, the research goes on apace. As does the training.

Next up for HASTC is the KNZB, the Royal Dutch Swimming Federation, which is returning in January for the first of two high altitude camps prior to Sydney.

Wonder why, except for small windows here and there, HASTC has little room for swimming groups until after Sydney. Maybe it has something to do with the 57 medals HASTC-trained athletes won in Atlanta.

About the Author
Michael J. Stott is a contributing editor to Swimming Technique and SWIM Magazine.

High Altitude Training Directory

U.S. Altitude Training Sites

  • High Altitude Sports Training Complex
        Northern Arizona University
    Location: Flagstaff, Arizona
    Altitude: 7,001 feet (2,134 meters)
    Built: HASTC opened in 1994; first athletes to Flagstaff in 1967
    Main pools: 8-lane. 50-meter pool with movable bulkhead to make 25-meter by 25-yard pools, 2 one-meter diving boards, 2 three-meter boards
    Deck size: 10,000 square feet of deck space includes locker rooms, dryland training and trampoline areas
    Other facilities: World-class track, weightlifting center, aerobics complex. NAU and area can accommodate virtually any sport from rowing to cycling, etc. Full medical care and physiological testing available
    Amenities: For swimming, underwater viewing and taping windows with state-of-the-art equipment (filming, editing, titling, etc.)
    Pool Fees: $14 per lane, per hour
    Accommodations: On-campus room and board, meeting rooms, recreation, skill and training sessions; off-campus readily available
    Typical users: Elite, Olympic and amateur athletes
    Recent visitors: Australian, Canadian, German, Italian, Japanese, Netherlands, New Zealand, U.S. national swimming teams; Norwegian national rowing team and Russian Rowing Federation; Egyptian Volleyball Federation
    Contact: Sean Anthony, Program Coordinator
    Phone: 520-523-4444

  • U.S. Olympic Training Center
    Location: Colorado Springs, Colorado
    Altitude: 1,860 meters (6,100 feet)
    Main pools: 10-lane, 50 meters by 25 meters with two movable bulkheads
    Deck size: 15 feet around
    Other facilities: Flume by appointment with USA Swimming
    Amenities: Two towing machines, A-V room, up to 12 cameras including underwater and overhead tracking cameras, telestrator, etc.
    Accommodations: Room and board
    Fees: Free (upon acceptance) to those with qualifying times (AAA for age groupers 12+), $30 for U.S. residents, $40 foreign
    Recent visitors: U.S. Resident National Team, Auburn University men and women, Stanford men and women, various members of Australian National Team
    Phone: 719-458-4578

  • High Altitude Center
        Los Alamos Aquatic Center
    Location: Los Alamos, New Mexico
    Altitude: 7,240 feet (2,208 meters)
    Built: 1987
    Main pools: 50 meters by 25 yards with movable bulkhead, 4 feet to 13 feet deep
    Deck size: 15' by 25' on one side, 7' to 8' on other
    Other facilities: 20 feet by 40 feet warm water therapy pool, mezzanine seating for 800 Pool fees: $16 per hour per lane for LCM; $7 for SCY, no minimum and subject to availability; $30 per hour staffing fee surcharge if pool is used during off hours
    Accommodations: Hotels within walking distance, bed & breakfasts, dorms ready by 2001
    Recent visitors: Australian, Belgian, Canadian, Dutch, German, Italian, Japanese, New Zealand and Saudi Arabian national swimming teams; Industry Hills, Peak Performance Swim Camps, Little Rock Dolphins, Dallas Mustangs
    Contact: Sam Kendricks, Manager
    Phone: 505-662-8170

  • Show Low Family Aquatic Center
    Location: Show Low, Arizona
    Altitude: 6,350 feet (1,935 meters)
    Built: 1993
    Main pools: 6 lanes by 25 yards
    Pool fees: $20/hr per group
    Typical users: Age group or high school teams
    Recent visitors: Arizona Marlins Swim Club
    Contact: Jennifer Cramp, Aquatics Director
    Phone: 520-537-2800

    Training opportunities in the 5,000-feet range also exist in Salt Lake City at the Steiner Aquatic Center and the Brigham Young University swimming camp. Coach Stan Crump runs three one-week camps the last three weeks of June.
    Angel Martino frequently trains for three weeks at the Leadville, Colo. Recreation Center (10,100 feet).
    Phone: 719-486-4226.

    Renowned International Sites

  • Centre d' Alt Rendiment Olympic Training Center
        (Sierra Nevada)
    Location: St. Cugat/Barcelona, Spain
    Altitude: 2,320 meters (7,611 feet)
    Built: 1987
    Main pools: 50 meters by 25 meters (10-lane outdoor); 6 lanes by 25 meters (indoor)
    Other facilities: Track and field, tennis, table tennis, weightlifting, martial arts, wrestling, gymnastics, volleyball, basketball, soccer, etc. Full medical, physiotherapy, physiological, psychological, podological, biomechanical services
    Amenities: TVs and phones in rooms
    Accommodations: Double rooms, quads and bungalows
    Typical users: Permanent or stage athletes
    Phone: (93)-5891572

  • Centre National d'Entrainement en Altitude
    Location: Font Romeu Odeillo, France
    Altitude: 1,850 meters (6,069 feet)
    Main pools: 6-lane, 50 meters by 15 meters; 5-lane, 25 meters by 12.5 meters
    Phone: (0468) 30 83 00 or 30 80 05

  • AIS/Thredbo Alpine Training Center
    Location: Thredbo Village NSW, Australia
    Altitude: 1,365 meters (4,478 feet)
    Built: 1996
    Main pools: 50 meters with 4 lanes by 50 meters; 25 meters by 4 lanes
    Other facilities: Full training complex for all popular sports; sport-specific physiological assessment
    Pool fees: $6 for an individual
    Accommodations: Everything from cabins, lodges to luxury hotels
    Recent visitors: Sydney Kings; Canberra Cannons; Scott Volkers Swim Squad, including Samantha Riley and Susie O'Neill; Australian swim team (five camps), including Alex Popov, Matt Dunn, Michael Klim, Ian Thorpe and Phil Rogers
    Phone: (02) 6459 4100

    A Toluca, Mexico site is run by esteemed coach, Nelson Vargas. Mexico City and Quito, Ecuador have more spartan altitude facilities, used in the past by world-class athletes.

    High Altitude Training Basics

    Why Altitude Training?

    • Acclimatize to competition at altitude
    • Improve long- and short-term sea level performance

    Why Simulated Hypoxia?

    • Physiological effects
    • Combine altitude and sea level training
    • Exact training control
    • Develop feel for effort
    • Reduce costs vs. natural altitude prep
    • Ethical implications (no drugs)

    Create Hypoxia Via:

    • Natural altitude
    • Simulated altitude
    • Different size pressure chambers
    • Closed rooms with gas mixtures
    • Stationary mask with gas mixture at normal pressure
    • Small breathable mask with gas mixtures and normal pressure

    Altitude Training Facts

    • Not a fast track to better results nor means to guaranteed effectiveness
    • Needs to be an integrated process
    • Requires individual monitoring
    • Physically and/or mentally ill-prepared athletes will be ill-served