Campus: CSU, Sacramento -- April 23, 2001
CSUS Researchers Lower the Bar On High Altitude
From Mexico City to Denver's Mile High Stadium there's been lots of
talk about how high elevation affects athletes. But researchers at California
State University, Sacramento say declines in exercise performance can
hit even closer to home - as low 1,900 feet.
Kinesiology and health science professor Daryl Parker, who conducted
the study with colleague Roberto Quintana, says, "Decreases in
exercise performance happen at much lower levels than had been thought.
Previously, endurance experts believed there is no change in endurance
until 5,000 feet or higher. The lowest altitude where we saw change
was 1,900 feet."
Their discovery is a first for American researchers and confirms a recent
finding by an Australian who came up with similar data, using different
It also has applications beyond the athletic arena. Parker says the
decrease in blood oxygen experienced by people at high elevations is
similar to what pulmonary patients and people with heart disease experience.
By studying how people respond to altitude, it may be possible to better
understand how disease processes work.
Besides turning conventional wisdom upside down on performance and altitude,
the researchers are challenging another long-held theory - that a person's
fitness level alone determines how they will perform at a high elevation.
It is widely accepted that the amount of decrease in performance depends
on a person's cardiorespiratory fitness. And, though it may surprise
some non-athletes, the expectation hasn't been that the fitter the person
the better they'll fare. Instead, the research has demonstrated the
higher the fitness level, the more capacity the person loses. But Parker
and Quintana believe that another factor may be involved.
"There are two markers for endurance: VO2 max, which is the maximum
amount of oxygen a person can consume in exercise, and lactate threshold,
the highest steady state intensity a person can maintain for a long
time," Parker says. Generally, Parker says, the more oxygen that
a person consumes - meaning a high VO2 max - the larger the decrease
in their exercise capacity at altitude. But people who can maintain
a high steady state intensity for a long time - those with a high lactate
threshold - seem to have less decline in exercise capacity at altitude.
The finding is big, Parker says since it overturns a previously held
belief among athletes that high fitness was a liability to high altitude
performance because of the resulting increases in VO2 max.
"They used to say, 'Why train if I'm going to compete at altitude?',"
he says. "Now they may want to look at ways to train to increase
lactate threshold in order to protect the amount of capacity they'll
lose." The types of training that increase lactate threshold vary
by fitness and activity type, Parker says, but could include intense
intervals of hard exercise, long periods of easy exercise or both.
As for altitude training, "For the most part, it doesn't work,"
Parker says. "Don't train at altitude if you want to do well at
And unfortunately for new mountain dwellers, Parker says that even as
they get more adjusted to the elevation, they will not be able to match
what they were able to do at sea level. Their performance may get better,
but their maximal exercise capacity won't increase.
For more information, contact CSUS public affairs at (916) 278-6156.