The Rundown on Swimming and Altitude Training

Ever since the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City (7,382 feet), altitude training has become essential to an elite endurance athlete’s exercise program. That was the first time the Olympics were hosted by a high elevation city. Athletes who lived in high altitude regions performed better than athletes from lower elevation regions.

Since then, altitude training has been studied extensively in endurance sports. Most scientific studies focus on running and cycling, however, the effect of altitude training is relatively uncertain in swimming. The sport differs from other endurance sports in its style of conditioning.

A large part of training for elite swimmers is performed in high-intensity intervals and strength work. The most successful long distance running and cycling programs typically balance low-intensity aerobic training with high-intensity threshold workouts, as well as strength training. While the effect of altitude training for swimmers is still being studied, runners that train in high elevations often report an increase in fitness.

Josh Cox, the American Record holder in the 50k and a four-time Olympic Trials qualifier in the marathon, saw immediate results when he moved to Mammoth Lakes. The town is situated at 8,000 feet, which is considered ideal for altitude training, but also has a range of elevations from 4,800 feet to 8,900 feet that are utilized for a variety of training intensities.

“After thirty days your body adjusts, and you get a blood adaptation,” says Cox. “So when you leave (altitude) you are basically supercharged.”

It is commonly known that endurance athletes who train at altitude will benefit from increased blood cell count, higher levels of hemoglobin, and a larger capacity to intake oxygen in the lungs. The athlete will be able to perform better at lower elevation as a result of the physiological adaptations.

But researchers were unsure if the results of altitude training in swimmers would be consistent with other endurance sports, so the Sport Sciences Research Group in Barcelona, Spain created The Altitude Project to test the impact of altitude training in swimmers. The results were published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, the journal of the American College of Sports Medicine.

With 61 international elite swimmers maintaining their individual training schedules, the test was divided into four controlled groups. Each group was exposed to different environmental conditions: 1. Living and training at moderate altitude (7,600 feet) for four weeks; 2. Identical intervention for three weeks; 3. Living at altitude (7,600 feet) and training at both moderate and low altitude (2,260 feet) for four weeks; and 4. Living and training at near sea level (600 feet) for four weeks.

After a period of three to four weeks training at altitude, swimmers showed mixed results. A combination of living at high altitude while training at both high and low elevations produced the best results among the swimmers.

However, all test groups had enhanced performances after one to four weeks of sea level recovery. The results indicate that swimmers benefit from altitude training, but because of the intensity of their training program, they need sea level recovery to maximize the results.

Monica Prelle

Monica Prelle is an outdoors, wine, and travel writer who would rather be running, climbing, or mountain biking. See more of Monica's posts here, read more of her work at monicaprelle.com and connect on twitter @monicaprelle

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