The effect of altitude in sports has been a hotly debated topic ever since the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, which is 2,250 meters above sea level. However, the literature so far was unfocused and studies had not been tightly controlled. Researchers have now taken to the peaks of France's Mont Blanc this summer to see whether the body's production of red blood cells at high altitudes has similar effects in athletes to doping agents like EPO.
In a month-long experiment ending in mid-August, 2015, a group of 11 Norwegian downhill skiers aged 18 to 25 years are spending most of their days at the Plan de l'Aiguille refuge near Chamonix, altitude 2,200 meters (7,218 feet). After a daily morning commute by cable car down into the valley, the participating athletes undergo an intensive training regime alternating inline skating, running, weight training, cycling and swimming. In the afternoon they return to the refuge and spend the rest of their day and night at an altitude where oxygen levels are 20% lower than at sea level.
Eirik Soemen, 18, a participant in the experiment, said, "My pulse is much higher, and I can feel my shortness of breath." Once the month of training is over, the athletes will return to Lillehammer, where they will undergo a battery of tests measuring their athletic performances, the volume of red cells in their blood, maximal oxygen intake and other criteria.
Paul Robach, a professor and researcher at that National School of Skiing and Mountaineering in Chamonix said, "The objective is to verify whether endurance performance is increased after living at high altitudes while training at lower levels. There's less oxygen at higher altitudes (so) the body reacts by creating more red cells. And in sport, the more red cells there are, the better it is, marathons are run faster, endurance is improved."
To safeguard the scientific validity of the study results, a control group of nine athletes residing only in the lower valley is undergoing the same training regime as those returning to the Plan de l'Aiguille refuge every afternoon. Robach said, "It remains to be seen whether the two group's performances will differ significantly from one another at the end of the month of training. That question is one of utmost importance, because training at high altitude is an alternative to doping, (and) is therefore of great interest to athletes."
The research team in Chamonix is hoping to present its results during the first half of 2016.