High Altitude Training

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•  Consequences of high altitude for gas exchange

Partial pressure is the pressure exerted by a single type of gas when it is found within a mixture of gases

The partial pressure of a given gas will be determined by:

  • The concentration of the gas within the mixture (e.g. oxygen forms roughly 21% of the atmosphere)
  • The total pressure of the mixture (e.g. atmospheric pressure)

At high altitudes, air pressure is lower and hence there is a lower partial pressure of oxygen (less O2 because less air overall)

  • This makes it more difficult for haemoglobin to take up and transport oxygen (lower Hb % saturation)
  • Consequently, respiring tissue will receive less oxygen – leading to symptoms such as fatigue, headaches and rapid pulse

Over time, the body may begin to acclimatise to the lower oxygen levels at high altitudes:

  • Red blood cell production will increase in order to maximise oxygen uptake and transport
  • Red blood cells will have a higher haemoglobin count with a higher affinity for oxygen
  • Vital capacity will increase to improve rate of gas exchange
  • Muscles will produce more myoglobin and have increased vascularisation to improve overall oxygen supply 
  • Kidneys will begin to secrete alkaline urine (removal of excess bicarbonates improves buffering of blood pH)
  • People living permanently at high altitudes will have a greater lung surface area and larger chest sizes

Professional athletes will often incorporate high altitude training in order to adopt these benefits prior to competition

  • Athletes may commonly either train at high altitudes (live low – train high) or recover at high altitudes (live high – train low)

Relationship between Altitude and Air Pressure

high altitude training