Last month I noticed a growing trend in the running community. My Instagram feed was jammed full of photos of super-fit, shirtless male athletes running along dusty Alpine trails. It was hard to ignore.
So I looked a little closer (not at the guys), and I realised it was Falls Creek in Victoria.
Altitude training may seem like a sporting buzzword but the scientific community is settled on its benefits. Training at altitudes between 1500 and 1850 metres above sea level is regarded by athletes and sports scientists to deliver tangible physical benefits by increasing the delivery of oxygen through the blood. It's particularly beneficial for middle and long distance runners or those competing in endurance sports.
Getting that professional edge
Australian Olympic runner and three-time World Champion finalist Brett Robinson is one of more than a hundred professional and recreational runners that altitude trains at Falls Creek. He says the Alpine National Park is Victoria's answer to training overseas.
"Winning athletes often live or train at altitude where the air is thinner and their bodies have to work harder to run," says Robinson.
"In preparation for the World Championships in London later this year, I'll spend three to four months in the United States and France, training at altitudes of 1600 metres or higher – Falls Creek is a great off-season training base because the altitude isn't too high and the terrain is challenging."
How it works
Research shows that when athletes return to sea level after a stint at elevation, they tend to experience physical and mental benefits that can last for weeks. Studies with elite athletes have shown that levels of haemoglobin – the protein in red blood cells that transports oxygen – can increase by about one per cent per week at altitude, which may translate into a one-to-three per cent boost in race performance.
Robinson says training at altitude delivers measurable results for him – including a personal best 5000 metre time three weeks after training at Falls Creek this year.
"Training at altitude allows you to work harder. Once you come down the mountain your whole body works better. For me, it seems that I use less effort to do the same run as before. I definitely notice an improvement in effort and efficiency," he says.
Get your highs locally
Most coaches recommend spending between 10 and 14 days at altitude, but not everyone has the time or money to head to Falls Creek, Thredbo or Mt Laguna in the US just to run.
In recent years, indoor altitude training centres have sprung up in recent years offering ultra-modern simulation equipment that allows mountaineers, cyclists and runners to train up to 5000 metres.
Oz Begen is the owner of Melbourne Altitude Training. He says high-tech equipment and expert supervision makes high altitude training not only feasible but also affordable.
"The artificial environments created at our state-of-the-art facility mimics the environments of high altitude locations, which enables runners to train more efficiently for quick, visible results," says Begen.
"Our simulated high altitude rooms cultivate an oxygen adjusted, enclosed arena, which can be optimised according to your ability to boost performance and drive results."
To get to the top
If you want to take your running to the next level and are willing to give altitude training a go then follow these tips to make sure you don't end up in a heap at the bottom of the mountain.
Robinson says just running at a higher altitude is hard enough so don't push yourself to run faster. Depending on the elevation, your workouts will likely be three to 15 per cent slower than usual. "Train at a normal sea-level effort and let the altitude do the hard work for you," says Robinson. "If you don't do this you'll run the risk of overtraining and negatively impacting your performance."
Drink more water
It's very easy to become dehydrated at higher altitudes because you are breathing out more so you lose water through respiration and the air is very dry so your sweat dries quickly potentially not triggering your normal urge to drink.
The dehydration will slow your adjustment to altitude as the body again is expelling more water and overworking the kidneys.
Maintain iron levels
Your body needs more iron as it creates more red blood cells, so eat iron-rich foods, like red meat and greens, along with Vitamin C, which helps with absorption.
The goal of one day completing an ultra-marathon inspires running fanatic Laura Hill to clock up the kilometres each week. With a day job in the corporate world, Laura loves nothing more than lacing up her runners and hitting the pavement to clear her mind and challenge her body.
Follow Laura Hill