Millet, Gregoire P.; Roels, B.; Schmitt, L.; Woorons, X.; Richalet, J.P. (2010). Combining hypoxic methods for peak performance. Sports Medicine, Vol. 40 – Issue 1 – pp 1-25.
New methods and devices for pursuing performance enhancement through altitude training were developed in Scandinavia and the USA in the early 1990s. At present, several forms of hypoxic training and/or altitude exposure exist: traditional ‘live high-train high’ (LHTH), contemporary ‘live high-train low’ (LHTL), intermittent hypoxic exposure during rest (IHE) and intermittent hypoxic exposure during continuous session (IHT). Although substantial differences exist between these methods of hypoxic training and/or exposure, all have the same goal: to induce an improvement in athletic performance at sea level. They are also used for preparation for competition at altitude and/or for the acclimatization of mountaineers.
The underlying mechanisms behind the effects of hypoxic training are widely debated. Although the popular view is that altitude training may lead to an increase in haematological capacity, this may not be the main, or the only, factor involved in the improvement of performance. Other central (such as ventilatory, haemodynamic or neural adaptation) or peripheral (such as muscle buffering capacity or economy) factors play an important role.
LHTL was shown to be an efficient method. The optimal altitude for living high has been defined as being 2200–2500 m to provide an optimal erythropoietic effect and up to 3100 m for non-haematological parameters. The optimal duration at altitude appears to be 4 weeks for inducing accelerated erythropoiesis whereas <3 weeks (i.e. 18 days) are long enough for beneficial changes in economy, muscle buffering capacity, the hypoxic ventilatory response or Na+/K+-ATPase activity. One critical point is the daily dose of altitude. A natural altitude of 2500 m for 20–22 h/day (in fact, travelling down to the valley only for training) appears sufficient to increase erythropoiesis and improve sea-level performance. ‘Longer is better’ as regards haematological changes since additional benefits have been shown as hypoxic exposure increases beyond 16 h/day. The minimum daily dose for stimulating erythropoiesis seems to be 12 h/day. For non-haematological changes, the implementation of a much shorter duration of exposure seems possible.
Athletes could take advantage of IHT, which seems more beneficial than IHE in performance enhancement. The intensity of hypoxic exercise might play a role on adaptations at the molecular level in skeletal muscle tissue. There is clear evidence that intense exercise at high altitude stimulates to a greater extent muscle adaptations for both aerobic and anaerobic exercises and limits the decrease in power. So although IHT induces no increase in VO2max due to the low ‘altitude dose’, improvement in athletic performance is likely to happen with high-intensity exercise (i.e. above the ventilatory threshold) due to an increase in mitochondrial efficiency and pH/lactate regulation. We propose a new combination of hypoxic method (which we suggest naming Living High-Training Low and High, interspersed; LHTLHi) combining LHTL (five nights at 3000 m and two nights at sea level) with training at sea level except for a few (2.3 per week) IHT sessions of supra-threshold training. This review also provides a rationale on how to combine the different hypoxic methods and suggests advances in both their implementation and their periodization during the yearly training programme of athletes competing in endurance, glycolytic or intermittent sports.