Having been born and having lived at high altitude for much of his life, few would perhaps better understand the physiological benefits than Kenyan-based NN Running Team coach Patrick Sang.
As an athlete – who won world and Olympic steeplechase silver medals - he reaped the benefit of consistently training at more than 2000m above sea level.
And now as coach to the likes of NN Running Team superstars Eliud Kipchoge and Geoffrey Kamworor plus dozens of others he is in little doubt that their altitude training base at Kaptagat – which sits at around 2400m above sea level – is hugely beneficial for the athletes.
“Many stories have been written about altitude training – some are true and some are fantasy,” explains Patrick. “But my general opinion is altitude has positive benefits in endurance sport. The body is a system, so we cannot talk about legs without lungs or you cannot talk about the brain and the ears without the stomach."
For someone living and training at high altitude for prolonged periods ensures that there is an advantage.
Patrick believes there are several benefits to training at high altitude. Firstly, he insists the extra energy expenditure required to train at this level enables the metabolic system to better control any potential weight gain.
However, the main benefit he feels is the impact it can play on developing lung capacity (through the production of red blood cells which allows for the better transportation of oxygen).
“Training at a high altitude allows for the development of a higher lung capacity. So when an athlete goes to a lower altitude zone they experience less stress on the body and a more comfortable feeling when running.”
Patrick has seen the benefits of high altitude training not only in athletes who are born and live at a high altitude but for athletes who hail from a low altitude environment. And the Kenyan coaching guru cites the example of 2020 Tokyo Olympic silver medallist and Dutch marathon record-holder Abdi Nageeye.
“His performances improved tremendously from training at altitude. You could see the results in a range of events from 10,000m to the marathon.”
Experienced Kaptagat-based 2:05 marathoner Laban Korir says after a sustained period training at high altitude he can feel a distinct advantage when running in a lower altitude zone.
“I know when I travel from Kenya to compete at a lower altitude in Europe or other parts of the world, running feels lighter and easier,” explains Laban, the current president at the Kaptagat training camp.
To take an understanding of altitude a step further, Patrick stresses the importance as a coach to instructing the athletes to run at a pace appropriate to the altitude. For athletes training at a low altitude to match the work of those training at a higher altitude they will need to work with a greater intensity.
Train with that same level of intensity at a higher altitude there is a risk it will destroy the body.
“So I always instruct my athletes to slightly back off when training at high altitude. There is a natural effect anyway (when training) in less oxygen-rich air, so it will slow an athletes down. However, when designing the programme it is important to indicate the kind of effort that is required.”
Patrick also stresses the reverse effect that after an athletes spends a period at a lower altitude – even an athlete accustomed to training at a high altitude can feel the impact.
“It will hit an athlete and they will use more energy to do what they used to be able to do (when training at high altitude),” he adds. “When I used to compete at Kenyan Trials (traditionally held at a high altitude venue) as an athlete I would advise at least three weeks training at altitude beforehand to acclimatise to the conditions.”
*To understand more on the benefits of training at altitude go here.