Why Joburg runners have a performance advantage
Altitude training can give you a competitive advantage when it comes to sports performance
In one hour, 59 minutes and 40 seconds Eliud Kipchoge shattered a psychophysiological barrier and opened a wormhole to a new galaxy of sports performance.
Or did he?
Like the Starship Enterprise he set out “to boldly go where no man has gone before”. Kipchoge has divided opinion on what he actually achieved.
If what he achieved in Vienna a week ago wasn’t a marathon feat but rather a demonstration of human potential — with the help of precision sports science and technology — then the job has been done.
Kipchoge ran tucked behind a wall of pacesetters along a flat surface, chasing a laser projected onto the tarmac by an all-electric vehicle travelling at a computer-generated pace, drinking high-carb liquids delivered by his own personal two-wheeled uber drinks courier, all the while wearing Nike Vaporfly wonder shoes.
The feat won’t be recognised as an official record because of the contrived setting with a rotation of seriously competitive pacesetters.
Let’s face it. Very few elite athletes, never mind the masses, will compete with so many environmental and support odds stacked in their favour.
The fine line between technology and sports performance harks back to the records set in Speedo LZR Racer swimsuits that were eventually banned. Speedo famously said that 98% of medals at the 2008 Olympics were won by swimmers wearing the LZR. It was controversial, no doubt.
However, to be fair to all the great athletes who wore the swimsuits, it’s not as if Joe Soap from the Linden public pool was suddenly able to give Michael Phelps a run for his money.
Kipchoge’s achievement was a marketing and publicity extravaganza funded by a British billionaire. There’s no hiding from it — his official marathon world record is two minutes shy of what he clocked in carefully curated conditions in Vienna.
However, while regarded as officially unofficial, the splits he ran in proving a “sub-two” is possible, are astounding.
Designer conditions and technology aside, he ran at a pace so fast, most people would struggle to maintain it for longer than a few seconds, if at all. Even if they had lasers to chase.
Ever run around a 400m track? Try doing it at 68 seconds a lap, 105 times before stoppingDevlin Brown
Let’s break down his average performance in a way that all sports fans or fitness enthusiasts can understand. Here are some nerdy comparisons courtesy of givemesport.com:
Four minutes and 35 seconds per mile for 26.2 miles. That’s 28.26 minutes to run a 10km ... 4.2 times in a row. Ever run around a 400m track? Try doing it at 68 seconds a lap, 105 times before stopping. He ran the 100m in 17.08 seconds more than 400 times consecutively. Basically, he averaged 21km/h for 1:59:40.
Kipchoge’s running mechanics are to the average runner what a pirouette is to the dodgy uncle at your cousin’s wedding: extraterrestrial.
His ability to use oxygen, his lactate threshold and other physiological adaptations wouldn’t feature on a bell curve describing the general population. They’d be in the next chapter. Perhaps another book. On the top shelf.
It’s not just Kipchoge. A few weeks ago Kenenisa Bekele ran the Berlin marathon in 2:01:41, just two seconds shy of Kipchoge’s official record and the second-fastest official marathon time on record. Who’d bet against him in his current form being able to run a sub-two in the Vienna conditions?
Both athletes are the cream of the crop. Both have a long history on the track and the road.
While most mere mortals can only dream of boarding the Starship Enterprise, runners slogging it out on Joburg roads all share one thing in common with the marathon legends. A hint: that razor-like burn that has left foreign rugby players gasping for air at Ellis Park like fish stranded on a sun-baked bank.
Kipchoge, Bekele, Haile Gebrselassie and any number of great marathon names have all spent many years of their lives training at altitude. In fact, most elite endurance athletes and sports people across codes take advantage of training at altitude. While this wasn’t the only factor that pushed Kipchoge under two hours, it has been an important part of his career in general, and for this event in particular.
Altitude training gives you a competitive advantage, and if you were born, live and train on the highveld you have an automatic edge. If managed properly, this could translate into your own stellar performance at your next event.
Don’t bet on the personalised drink service, though. That’s the stuff of legends and billionaires.
David Leith, a high-performance biokineticist with a special interest in running at the Sports Science Institute of SA says: “Athletes living and training in Johannesburg definitely inherit a competitive advantage — both when competing against ‘lowlanders’ at high altitude and at sea level — due to the enhanced adaptations of training at altitude.”
However, when it comes to competitive events, no Joburger taking part in the sharp end of the field should rest on their laurels as the coastal folk know this and will no doubt add altitude training to their own preparation.
Athletes living and training in Johannesburg definitely inherit a competitive advantage — both when competing against ‘lowlanders’ at high altitude and at sea level.David Leith
“Altitude training is used by athletes to confer adaptations associated with the reduced partial pressure of oxygen in the air and thus reduced oxygen availability. Primarily, this stimulates an increased erythropoietic response that increases the amount of the oxygen-carrying protein haemoglobin. Together with increased capillary formation, this increases the amount of oxygen that can be transported from your lungs to your muscles and thus fuel the energy demands of exercise,” says Leith, who provides online running programmes and coaching to varying levels of runners, from recreational to competitive.
There are also other adaptations that happen when training at altitude. These include increased mitochondrial protein synthesis which Leith says is responsible for oxidative metabolism and enhanced muscle buffering that helps mitigate the rise in acid associated with intense exercise.
Kipchoge simply would not have been able to run at that pace for that long had he not developed an incredibly advanced mechanism to deal with lactic acid.
Leith explains that the extent of the adaptation and performance enhancement, however, depends on several factors. Variables such as the duration and degree of exposure to low oxygen, the intensity and distribution of training, when the altitude training block is scheduled relative to the event date, the iron status of the athlete and variability between athletes all play a role in how much benefit will be enjoyed.
The optimum altitude for this type of training is between 1,400m and 2,500m. Johannesburg is about 1,750m above sea level. Kipchoge was born in Nandi County in Kenya, which is about 2,000m above sea level.
“His daily active lifestyle and accumulated mileage growing up would have already conferred considerable erythropoietic and mitochondrial adaptations and laid the foundation for his dedicated training later in life,” says Leith.
“Kipchoge’s training camps in recent years have been situated in Kaptagat, which is about 2,400m above sea level, where he spends most of his year, outside travelling to races worldwide.”
Leith explains that his consistent exposure to, and training at, high altitude, combined with lifestyle factors, his dedicated training regimen, and regular experience racing at or near sea level would have worked together “to produce an incredible physiology, that as we have seen, is now capable of a sub-two hour marathon”.
How can this all be applied to your own training?
Leith says there has been a lot of research into optimum durations and periodisation relative to an athlete’s target event, as well as into the different performance advantages of the Live High Train Low (LHTL) or Live High Train High (LHTH) modalities. Some insights from Leith are:
- The optimum period of training camps to stimulate adaptations but not compromise training quality appears to be three to four weeks for middle- to long-distance athletes.
- Success has been reported by athletes after both the LHTL model (living and performing only low-intensity sessions at altitude but performing high-intensity sessions at sea level to maintain race fitness), as well as the LHTH model (living and training harder at altitude).
- With LHTH, training volume and intensity needs to be progressed slowly to accommodate an athlete’s experience with hypoxic exposure and response during a camp. “It appears that your body has ‘hypoxic memory’ meaning that adaptations occur more readily if you have been exposed to a more hypoxic environment before,” he says. Elite athletes plan multiple altitude camps in a calendar year, periodised to help them peak at their primary events.
- Returning from altitude camps or travelling from altitude to sea level for competition should also be timed strategically, since it appears the optimum timing is either two to three weeks before competition, or two to three days before competition. You would likely have to learn over time what works best for you.