Training in the “thin air” of altitude is beneficial as the body adapts to the circumstance that each breath taken delivers less oxygen than our working muscles require. To make up for the fewer oxygen molecules per volume of air, one of our body’s hormones, erythropoietin (EPO) triggers the production of more red blood cells to boost oxygen delivery to the muscles. We know that we start to see benefits at altitudes above 1600m.
The benefit of heading to lower altitudes where the air is richer in oxygen molecules is the advantage of increased delivery of oxygen to the muscles due to the extra red blood cells that the body has produced. General wisdom is that this physiological advantage can last from 10-20 days. It is important to realise that moving from high to low altitude is not all rainbows and unicorns. Physiological factors such as thyroid function are known to decrease, inducing symptoms such as fatigue, muscle weakness, mood disturbance and GI upset. Whilst there are benefits to living up high we need to balance this with risk factors. Just because you live and or train high, does not make you superhuman.
The synthetic version of EPO has been used as a performance enhancing drug by endurance athletes to allow the body to up-regulate the production of red blood cells, thus boosting oxygen carrying capacity, and in turn performance. Apart from being illegal, this process, if not undertaken judiciously, is dangerous; there are numerous examples of athletes in decades past dropping dead in the middle of the night of cardiac arrest, attributed to the thickness of the blood as a result of the misuse of EPO.
So for those of us who exist near sea level is Simulated Altitude Training, where you train at a facility that simulates thin air environments going to provide any appreciable benefits for us in terms of noticeable performance enhancement? In short? No.
I would most strongly suggest that in preparing for an event at higher altitudes, or with significant vertical elevation, you must attend to the 99% of your performance before you attend to the 1% benefit that simulated altitude training can give you. This is a different issue from acclimatisation, whereby a period of 10-21 days living in the environment you will be racing in is useful to moderate the shock of high altitude. There are very few substitutes for this. The only one I can think of is setting your home and office up as an altitude chamber so you are living at simulated altitude for the majority of the time.
Take New Zealander Jake Robertson, who just ran 1:00:01 at the Houston Half Marathon. Jake, along with his twin brother, Zane, have been living and training in East Africa for the last 10 years. Certainly, the high altitude will be helpful, however it is the complete immersion in the Kenyan high performance community, and adoption of every aspect of this, from diet to routine along with argon discipline and focus on achievement that would been the main contributing factors to Robertson’s success. Successful athletes understand that there is no shortcut to success. There is no panacea, be that altitude, specific shoes, or diet. It has to be everything, not one thing. Whilst spending a significant amount of time long term in a simulated high altitude training environment will likely have some benefit to performance I would suggest most strongly that attention to biorhythms, nutrition, and disciplined application of training will be significantly more advantageous in the long run for those of us who live near sea level.