Altitude effects on endurance performance

Since the 1969 Olympic Games in Mexico City the topic of altitude and performance has received a lot of attention. In this blog, we will look at what effects can it have on endurance performance.

Asker Jeukendrup Sports Science Exercise Nutrition

Why did altitude receive attention after Mexico City Olympics?

Mexico City is situated at 2240m or 7314 feet. It was observed that winning performances in short events 100m, 200m, 4 x 100m and long jump were faster than world records at that time (1%). In contrast the distance running events 3000m steeple, 5000 and 10,000m were all much slower (4-6%). Since then, it has become clear that distance running performance (800m and up) is impaired at altitude. Studies have suggested that altitudes as low as 580-800m (1902-2624 ft) can already affect endurance performance [1,2].

Distance running performance is impaired at altitude

What does the research say?

A study by Michael Hamlin from Lincoln University in Christchurch New Zealand and colleagues discussed an analysis of a large number of performances at various altitudes.

The authors analysed over 132,000 performances of athletes placed in the top 16 in at least one major international competition between 2000 and 2009. Almost 1900 athletes were included at 794 venues of varying altitudes. Professor Will Hopkins from AUT University in Auckland, New Zealand, one of the authors who has specialized in statistics and analysing such datasets, transformed the data so that events could be divided into 6 levels of altitude.

The results showed that there were marginal impairments in performance in distance events at altitudes as low as 150m (492 ft), but above 1000m (3280ft) performance decreases were as large as 2-4%.

Above 1000m (3280ft), performance decreases were as large as 2-4%

In summary...

Although it is known that altitude may impair endurance performance, this study suggests for the first time that already at very low altitudes distance running performance may be impaired. These impairments may be small and the higher the altitude the greater the impairment may be. There may not be any immediate practical takehome messages here, but the findings bring to light that when we are comparing endurance performances from different competitions objectively we have to account for altitude, even when the altitudes do not seem to be that extreme!

Evaluation of the study

Hamlin MJ et al Effects of altitude on performance of elite track and field athletes. Int J Sports Physiol Perf 2015


- This study uses REAL data with real meaning and relevance

- Analyzed a range of performance (we only discuss the endurance runnings events here)