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LHTH Altitude Training: Paradigm Shifts

Ryan Bak Altitude Training


Now that you know the basic fine points and pitfalls of spending a month in Kenya, lets look at how to develop an actual LHTH altitude-training program.

As we suggested earlier a quality LHTH program should be developed around maximizing biological benefit acquisition, while minimizing performance-inhibiting factors such as detraining.

Let’s start by looking at some world class altitude training programs used by professional endurance athletes around the world.

Adams State College Track Coach Dr. Joe Vigil’s LHTH Program:

  1. 1 week acclimatization phase
  • 2 to 3, 30 minute slow endurance runs daily
  • Strength training

2.  2-4 week training phase

  • Objective 1: Reach sea-level training volume
  • Objective 2: Increase training intensity (approach sea-level interval times)

3.  1 week recovery and preparation phase

  • Reduce training, volume, intensity and strength training

4.  Athlete returns to sea level for competition

  • Objective 1: Reestablish sea-level training pattern
  • Objective 2: Increase training intensity

**Note: A detailed description of Dr. Joe Vigil’s altitude training program and other acclaimed programs are available in the book Altitude Training and Athletic Performance by Randall Wilber.  In this program training volume and intensity are increased according to mathematical tables that account for both altitude related aerobic decrements and wind resistance reductions.

Lets look at the principles of this program and their underlying scientific rationale:

1)   The Acclimatization Phase:

  • The scientific rationale behind this initial period is that it is when athletes are most susceptible to overtraining.
  • Overtraining during this phase may also prevent athletes from gaining biological benefits of altitude training.
  • During this 3-5 day phase, short-term ventilatory, cardiovascular, and enzymatic changes occur that make succeeding training less damaging.
  •  EPO levels are highest in the first five days (usually peaking 3rd day), which can be reduced significantly by lactic acid in the blood.

2)   The Volume Before Intensity (VBI) Approach:

  • The rationale behind the VBI approach is that a training load must be reduced in order to prevent overtraining at high altitude.
  • Many coaches believe that overtraining is a larger risk if athletes resume their training intensity.
  • Many coaches also conclude that training intensity can simply not be maintained at high altitude.

Problems with the VBI Approach: Why Many Elite Coaches Are Wrong

1)   High training volume is a larger risk for over training than high intensity!

  • High volume leads to substantially more oxidative stress, which is higher already due to hypoxic training.
  • High volume increases dehydration risk, which is a major contributor to overtraining at high altitude.

2)   Reducing training intensity without ever fully restoring it to sea-level values will lead to detraining effects 100% of the time!

  • Training intensity is the most vital component of improving performance, period!
  • Detailing the science behind this statement goes beyond the scope of this post, however, to summarize training intensity leads to improvements in all anaerobic and aerobic energy systems, which are required for optimal performance.


The VBI approach was developed to prevent overtraining at altitude and results in sea-level training intensity to never be restored.  This method not only increases the risk of overtraining, but also makes detraining a certainty.

The New LHTH Paradigm: Intensity Before Volume (IBV) and Harnessing the Altitude:

So how can you avoid detraining without running the risk of overtraining in the high altitude environment?

Believe it or not, maintaining high training intensity and gradually increasing training volume is the solution.  It is completely possible to achieve sea-level training intensity at high altitude.  It simply involves reducing training volume.  For example, a 1000 m runner cannot maintain his 1000 m pace while at altitude, but he can maintain it for 800 m.

As the runner harnesses the aerobic benefits of acclimatization as well as the anaerobic benefits of maintaining training intensity he can then expand training volume.  However, full volume will not be restored to sea-level values to prevent overtraining.

The efficacy of the IBV principled is highly supported by its use in the training regiments of Kenyan runners.  When interviewed about the success of Kenyan runners, Kenyan coach Mike Kosgei claimed that “intense training at high altitude” was the number on reason for their historical domination of endurance events.

Here is a basic outline of how to implement IBV into a program:

1)   Week 1:

  • Focus on sport specific strength training and plyometrics
  • A perfect example is in the Effortlessly Superhuman Protocol in the Getting Stronger chapter of the 4-Hour Body
  • Keep total time under tension to below 8 seconds to ensure minimal lactic acid production
  • Be obsessive about maintaining adequate hydration
  • Minimizing time under tension, not only promotes proper hematological acclimatization, but it also allows you to do the same strength exercise over consecutive days

2)   Week 2:

  • Begin incorporating high intensity training intervals into your workout
  • Minimum of 6 minutes in between training intervals
  • Maximum of 5 intervals in a day, 2-3 days total
  • Do not do intervals if you feel more than mild muscle soreness
  • If you are doing pace work for racing events reduce distance to 70% of sea level values
  • Remain obsessive about hydration

3)   Week 3:

  • Maintain rules and principles from week 2
  • Increase pace-work distance to 77.5% sea level values
  • Remain obsessive about hydration

4)   Week 4:

  • Maintain rules and principles from week 2 and 3
  • Increase pace-work distance to 85% sea level values
  • Be aware of sport specific considerations of your sea-level return (blog link)
  • Remain obsessive about hydration 

After you have completed this training program you will seriously be the best competitive shape in your life.  Your red blood cell count will be 3-9% higher, your muscles will be more effective in buffering the lactic acid and h+ ions, and you will not have experienced any muscle loss of neuro-muscular detraining.

We have trained many elite athletes with this program that have gone on to shatter the personal best race times.  Feel free to ask questions about how to tailor this program to your individual training regiment or sport.

  • TheBody

    Thanks for the great article. Very nice! Does altitude training help weight lifters for competitions at high altitudes?

  • Jason Keck

    Altitude training is not very advantageous to weight lifters. The reason for this is that even just sleeping at high altitude, can decrease muscle size over time. Part of the reason for this is that prolonged altitude exposure can deplete skeletal muscle creatine phosphate and ATP concentrations. Creatine supplementation may be wise to prepare for a high altitude weight lifting competition.