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Altitude Acclimatization for Motocross

by Coach Seiji


I read exercise and health related studies all the time. I am sort of a geek like that. It occurred to me a while back that I never talk about them unless it comes up in a conversation and I just blurt out some remote research finding that leaves people wondering why I have so much idle time. I decided that instead of waiting for something to trigger my memory to regurgitate in my own words what the study said, I should do it beforehand. So, here is the first installment of “Coach Seiji’s Take” on research studies that I think might be even remotely helpful to the moto training crowd. I will use sort of a short, note taking format since I read so many of these and it makes sense to just get them out vs. trying to make them pretty. Any suggestions are fully appreciated and even if it helps one rider, that’s enough reward to keep me on this. Thanks in advance for reading.

The only thing Coach Seiji loves more than motocross is climbing. Well, that and his wife, dogs, baby girl, cycling, and Andrew Short. The order of which is still up in the air!

I have constantly read studies pertaining to altitude training not only because of my personal interest in climbing (and living at 600 ft. in Texas) but also because my biggest college paper was about altitude acclimatization and I have always been pretty interested in it. Combine that with the recent Lance Armstrong debacle, the quest for greater performance via blood vector “doping” or manipulation still gets rolled around in my head.

I use an altitude tent to pre acclimatize before climbing trips. I am about to start doing it again for a trip after the MX series is complete. These tents reduce the concentration of oxygen but not the partial pressure of oxygen (basically the portion of atmospheric pressure contributed by oxygen which ultimately “pushes” the oxygen into your blood and cells). I know that it does help with acclimatizing to altitude, which of course helps your performance at altitude when you don’t live at altitude. There are several ways to use altitude generators, for this study they used the “HiLo” method, which is living at high altitude but training at low altitude. The main part of the HiLo theory is that sleeping/resting at higher altitude provides the stimulus necessary to alter physiology but training low allows you to maintain training intensity and offsets some of the negative effects of staying at altitude.

If you are not familiar with what an altitude tent looks like, this is a simple one man unit.

What was studied:
If physiologic adaptations and performance benefits happen using HiLo altitude training in elite, world class level track runners.

The study investigated the question of whether altitude training would benefit an elite athlete, who in some theories, would already have all the processes that aid in oxygen transport adapted to the highest levels simply because he is operating at the limits of those systems regardless of the altitude. Studies have shown increases in all physiologic markers of altitude adaptation and performance benefits in non-elite athletes but not so much for the world class set.

Living at about 8200 ft, doing high intensity training at 4100 ft, doing base level training at 4100-9800 ft. This is more of a “HiHiLo” protocol: Live at high altitude, do low and moderate intensity training at high altitude, do high intensity work at low altitude. All done around Salt Lake City, UT.

This study was a bit older, published in 2001. I never saw it because when doing altitude research I look at universities (or the Olympic Training Center) that are actually at altitude. This one was done by researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.

.....I have a lot of personal experience, to form a strong opinion; that altitude tents used properly will give you performance benefits at high intensities at both altitude and sea level

This study used collegiate elite 3000 meter runners, right after their NCAA and USAT National Championships so that they were at their season peak in fitness. 26 total subjects with competitive distances between 1500 meter and the marathon. They could not reside at altitude and they were well established elite level athletes: 50% had been to the Olympic Trials, 2 actual Olympians and all but 4 had competed in multiple USAT or NCAA National Track and Field Championships.

Racing at locations like Mammoth and Colorado can be a challenge for most of us who live at much lower altitudes.

Photo: Mike Emery

Assessments done pre and post living for 27 days at high altitude with training altitude parameters listed above. Performance assessments done with a pacing “rabbit” to eliminate tactical errors, benchmark distance was 3000 meter at sea level. All athletes received a liquid iron supplement which was dose adjusted for their personal plasma ferritin concentration. Coaching was carried out by their normal personal coaches.

4 athletes dropped out due to illness/injury. All other athletes showed average 3000 meter time trial decrease of 5.8 sec. (23 sec was largest gain, one athlete was actually 18 sec slower), VO2 max average increase was 3%, maximal minute ventilation was increased. Time to exhaustion on treadmill and arterial oxygen saturation at maximal output were not affected.

Hemoglobin and hematocrit increased and remained elevated when returning to sea level. Plasma EPO concentrations doubled after only one night at altitude but fell immediately upon returning to sea level. Plasma ferritin concentrations remained stable but have to consider that supplemental iron was used.

There wasn’t a control group, i.e. athletes from same pool living at sea level using same training protocol. Using supplemental iron could skew things but I think athletes at this level are eating smart and would have plenty of dietary iron in their programs.

My take:
I have read enough studies related to altitude tents/altitude training, and have a lot of personal experience, to form a strong opinion; that altitude tents used properly will give you performance benefits at high intensities (aerobic threshold and higher intensities) at both altitude and sea level. This study further validates my opinion by showing that it can also hold true for very high level, world class athletes as well even with their systems being trained to the upper limits. Bottom line: if you are looking for every performance advantage, and especially if you have to compete at altitude but don’t live at altitude, properly using an altitude tent can make significant changes to your physiology to give you a performance gain. You do have to be smart as you are taking away some of the recovery benefits of sleep by sleeping in the altitude tent, but smart management of your available energy and energy input can mitigate this so that you are coming out with a very significant advantage. I personally don’t think using them to try to create an advantage at sea level due to the recovery cost and possible negative effects to training in motocross (our sport isn’t ONLY dependent on aerobic capacity) is worth the gamble but if you have to go to altitude and don’t live at altitude, I fully believe that it will be a significant advantage worth pursuing.

That's it for now, until next time, good luck with your training and remember, if you have a question, log on to the Virtual Trainer Expert Forum and have your question answered by a panel of experts. In addition, be sure and check out the Racer X Virtual Trainer archive section. Your complete one-stop information zone for motocross fitness. VT Signature

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  1. Gravatar
    lee mc July 11, 2014 at 6:37 pm

    Thanks for the info
    Much appreciated

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