We sat down with NSWIS Physiologist Erin McCleave to discuss her studies into the impact of heat and altitude training on our athletes
What prompted you to commence research on how combined heat and altitude training can influence an athlete’s training and performance?
Environmental physiology has been an area that I’ve always been interested in. We regularly utilise heat or altitude exposure into many NSWIS athletes training program, whether it be in an early season training camp or in the lead up to competition. However, until a couple of years ago, there had been very little research into the combined effects of heat and altitude. After some findings were published that indicated positive performance and physiology in team sport athletes, it was an area that we decided would be interesting to further pursue.
Given the global nature of sports, how important is it for athletes to acclimatise themselves with the different temperatures of different countries?
One of the disadvantages of being an elite athlete in the southern hemisphere is that often your main international competitions occurs in the northern hemisphere summer (our winter). When an athlete is going to be competing in a hot environment, acclimatising your body to the warmer temperatures through repeated heat exposure is the best way for your body to physiologically adapt and reduce the stress of the heat on your body. This is particularly important for longer duration endurance events or team sport athletes, where heat can be detrimental to performance. If athletes are going to be competing in hot environments, then having the opportunity to acclimatise prior, whether it be arriving a few days earlier to doing some simulated exposure before they depart, will definitely optimise their performance potential.
What was the relationship between heat and altitude training?
Interestingly, both heat and altitude appear to activate similar physiological pathways. And both variables can improve performance in cooler, sea level environments (not just when competing in hot conditions or at altitude). Altitude training has the potential to increase haemoglobin mass, red blood cell volume and buffering capacity, increasing blood volume and the capacity for the body to delivery oxygen to the muscle. Heat acclimatisation generally increases blood plasma volume and reduces thermal and cardiovascular stress on the body. What we are interested in is whether combining the two stimuli at the same time had an additive effect, essentially doubling the physiological advantage for the athlete and improving their capacity to perform not only in hot or altitude environments, but also in temperate/sea level conditions, where a lot of our athletes train and compete.
What were your overall findings on how combined heat and altitude training can influence an athlete’s training and performance?
There certainly appears to be some positive physiological benefits of combining heat and altitude, however it does place a lot of physiological stress on the body. So the timing and the dose of how heat and altitude is combined becomes crucial to make sure optimal adaptation occurs. Heat alone appears to improve endurance performance in hot and cool conditions and there is other research emerging indicating a positive cross-tolerance between heat and altitude, ie. training in the heat can also improve performance in altitude environments.
How will your research positively impact on NSWIS athletes?
The research conducted has enabled us to optimise how best to incorporate heat and/or altitude into an athlete’s training program. We are among the first in the world to investigate and implement this topic and I do believe it has given NSWIS athletes a leading performance edge over their competitors. It is an exciting area and we will continue to develop and explore.