How to Simulate High Altitude Training for Cyclists

By : Mr Mamil
Updated :

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Cycling is a tough endurance sport where the cyclist is frequently subjected to heavy training, competition loads, and harsh weather conditions. To increase the effectiveness of the cardio-respiratory system during cycling, sports scientists have developed nutritional and physiological methods to enhance performance.

Altitude training is UCI-legal, natural, and popular performance-enhancing method used today. Professional cyclists would go for a high altitude camp at places such as Mallorca and Boulder, Colorado, to spend a few weeks training and living at high altitudes in preparation for the Grand Tours. Many of the decisive mountain passes in the Giro d’Italia, Tour de France, and Vuelta Espana are located above 2,000m above sea level.

Many amateur cyclists would love to take advantage of the same benefits of training at a higher elevation, but work, family, geographical and financial factors can get in the way.

So, how to simulate living and training at altitude?

Let’s examine each of these altitude training alternatives in detail.

Altitude tents

Cyclists inside An Altitude Tent

An altitude tent recreates a hypobaric hypoxia environment as you sleep.

The official term for altitude tents is Hypobaric Hypoxia. The air inside the tent has the same effective oxygen percentage (21%) as at sea level, but the air is thinner, making oxygen less plentiful.

The altitude tent imitates altitude by replacing some the oxygen inside the tent with nitrogen via an external device. And as a result, you breathe fewer oxygen molecules.

Sleeping in an altitude tent is better than nothing, but experts argue that a cyclist would need up to 12 hours a day in the tent for three weeks or more to replicate one normal week at true altitude.

Many professional cyclists have claimed to see positive performance gains from altitude tents, such as Victor Campenaerts and Matthieu van der Poel.

Altitude chambers

Altitude Chamber Training Facility

Also known as hypoxic chambers, altitude chambers are commonly reserved for scientific and aerospace research and training. Subjects first breathe pure oxygen via masks to rid their system of nitrogen.

Atmospheric pressure is then lowered inside to replicate high-altitude conditions before the masks are removed. Air-tight chambers of this type best replicate high-altitude conditions.

The use of altitude chambers is not met without controversy as they are often associated with an artificial means of enhancing athletic performance. Some compare them to blood doping and label them as an unfair advantage as they stimulate the production of EPO and red blood cells.

In recent years, Matthieu van der Poel and Team Lotto Soudal were known for using altitude chambers as a substitute for going to high altitudes.

Altitude masks

Most experts agree that a high-altitude mask (also known as an elevation mask) is the least effective of the three modalities.

The mask doesn’t replicate altitude at all, it decreases airflow to the lungs, which forces the athlete to work harder to breathe.

Some say this mimics being at altitude, but it’s doubtful as the pressure of oxygen is not decreased in any way, just restricted. Obstructed breathing doesn’t encourage the creation of red blood cells.

As opposed to the other two that work while you sleep, the mask has to be worn during exercise.

Exercising at an intense level is challenging enough, but training with a mask apparatus would be, in my opinion, too cumbersome.