The endurance world loves the thought of “altitude training” and with good reason. Simply spending a few weeks at higher elevations can improve your body’s ability to deliver oxygen to working muscles, decrease your rating of perceived exertion when returning to sea level, and can help you cement motor engrams due to the reduced air resistance. Here in Flagstaff, there is always a rotation of high level athletes coming to train for a few weeks or months before returning to sea level training because they are looking for that extra 1%.
While these are all great things for performance, one thing we as coaches fail to recognize is the impact that the ascent has on breathing patterns. Upon one’s ascent to altitude, there is a decrease in the partial pressure of oxygen, thus making hemoglobin saturation less effective. In response, the athlete is forced to breathe more frequently so as to elevate pulmonary ventilation. While this, in itself, is not a concern, if a sea-level athlete who is already an accessory breather or has a poorly maintained diaphragm, you’re almost certain to feed into inner unit dysfunction and predispose the athlete to injury.
It appears that sea level born athletes tend to have a powerful response to hypoxia, whereas those who are born at altitude seem to have a “pre-setting” that leads to a minimal ventilatory response, so it may be less of a concern for these athletes returning to altitude.
The best way around the effects of high elevation is to come to altitude already fit and well patterned. Nothing is more frustrating than trying to get in shape at altitude, and a breathing pattern disorder will only make the process more difficult. Furthermore, some coaches like Wynn Gmitroski, who have had good success with altitude training, incorporate extensive use of yoga and deep breathing techniques into their programming. While it’s intention may not be to establish appropriate breathing patterns, it certainly can do the trick.