Ahead of our summer training base in St. Moritz (1856m) many of our athletes have written in to directly ask about altitude.
What are the potential benefits? What will be the effect if I come to St. Moritz for 6 days?
This follows discussions we have with our coaches internally about what height is best and what is too low?
Altitude training for most people is beneficial in helping performance. However, how you train at altitude is crucial to that process. It's not just a matter of turning up with the same programs and thinking all will be well.
If you're an age group athlete coming for a 6-day camp the altitude itself has minimal benefits. You need between 10 and 21 days to get the full effect - which is very difficult if you have full-time work commitments. What is most beneficial here is the education you are learning at our camps. That should be the priority, not trying to cram enormous training gains in a short time.
As to what is 'too high?'
This question has a number of answers. Our squad, along with the Great Britain, German, and Italian triathlon federations believe that 1,856m allows us great benefits in all three sports.
If you are on a cycling only holiday/camp up to 3,000m is doable at a slow tempo. This is because the non-eccentricity of riding gives you valuable aerobic function.
For pure running, we see most benefits at around the 2,000-2,500m range. Because a lot of running is done at below threshold level these heights produce great positives for endurance.
In swimming the debate is of a different nature. The higher you go the less intensity can be maintained. Too high and the lack of oxygen means losing the ability to hold important sets. As a swim coach, I found my sprinters always did very well coming back from super high altitude. Yet nearly every middle and distance athlete I took never saw the same benefit. For this reason, in triathlon 1,856m is the highest I have ventured.
Is this anecdotal? Yes! St. Moritz is also unique in that while it is so high, the terrain is very flat. This enables athletes to more effectively recover than in other high-altitude bases where sometimes a simple walk to the shops or swimming pool becomes a hill set in itself.
Just as uniquely, we trained at the iconic Alpe d'Huez which is also at 1800m, but its geography means that within 12km athletes can be back down and training at 300m. Thus, we mixed the live high, train-low principle where all fast work was done down in the valley.
If there is a 'too high' for triathlon is there an altitude 'too low' to benefit?
Again, this is anecdotal, but we have found benefit in many of our camps even at 1000m. When I first started out experimenting with altitude for triathlon, we purposely chose lower altitudes as an insurance base for not overtaxing athletes. Jindabyne in Australia and Vallee Joux in Switzerland are both at a 1000m. Both locations produced outstanding results.
I'd also remind people that the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra is at 700m. It's not listed as altitude training but many a world record has come out of that base. So yes, we do believe there is a positive gain even at low-level altitude.
However, I stress again that wherever you are based solid, consistent training will beat a last-minute dash up the mountains to get fit every time.