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Is Altitude Training a ‘Must’ for Tour de France Success?

Is Altitude Training a ‘Must’ for Tour de France Success?



If it feels like every professional rider is doing altitude training camps these days, it’s because they are.

Whole teams and individual pros are grabbing flights to places like Tenerife, Teide, Andorra, and Sierra Nevada, seeking 2,000-plus meters at elevation to help them find their edge in the next race. And everyone is doing it—from Tour de France champs Jonas Vingegaard and Tadej Pogacar to Paris-Roubaix winner Alison Jackson and Dutch phenom Demi Vollering.

But the trend isn’t new. In 2023, Visma-Lease a Bike started taking the squad to Teide, Spain, for an altitude camp, then again in May in preparation for the Tour de France. This year, Vingegaard preceded his 2024 season openers, O Gran Camiño and Tirreno Adriatico (both races he won), with the same altitude program.

Wout van Aert also took a similar approach in preparation for the Classics this year, opting for a three-week altitude camp before his appearance at the E3 Saxo Classic in the hopes of peaking for the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. Sadly, he crashed at Dwars door Vlaanderen and missed out on both podiums. Van Aert chose the altitude camp over racing Strade Bianche, Milano-Sanremo, and Tirreno-Adriatico. Confident that the thin air would help him conquer his second Monument, but despite his spring-campaign-ending crash, Van Aert made an impressive start to the season with a dominant display at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, where he got third and won in Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne.

We also have Tadej Pogacar, whose preparation for last year’s Tour de France also involved altitude training during a six-week break after Liège-Bastogne-Liége. This year, following dominating wins at Strade Bianche and Volta a Catalunya, Pogacar headed to Sierra Nevada, Spain, looking to keep his legs and lungs sharp ahead of Liège-Bastogne-Liège and, most importantly, his Giro d’Italia debut.

And it isn’t only Classics and general classification riders seeking the thin-air high. This year, sprinter Mark Cavendish’s significant goal is a last chance to break the 34-win tie with Eddy Merckx for most Tour de France stage wins. Therefore, his new team has increased their sprinting power by adding Davide Ballerini and Michael Mørkøv from Soudal Quick-Step—both former teammates of Cavendish who were essential to his success at the 2021 Tour de France. Astana is showing full support for the sprinter, and to make the best out of an encore season, the Manx Missile has been giving altitude training a go.

“I would like Mark to do two to three altitude training camps before the Tour. At the end of the day, based on the race program, we will probably do two camps,” said Vasilis Anastopoulos, Cavendish’s coach to Cycling Weekly.

“I haven't done that much altitude in my career, but it’s kind of what you have to do now,” said Cavendish. “It’s not like you’re getting a benefit from doing it. You’re [not] at the level if you don’t do it now.”

While men’s teams have been training at altitude camps for years, the women’s pro peloton was slower to catch on, largely due to budget constraints. But now, women’s teams including Canyon//SRAM, EF Education First-Cannondale and nearly all the women’s teams with corresponding men’s teams are opting for altitude camps.

Last year, Canyon//SRAM’s Kasia Niewiadoma told Bicycling, “We’re seeing teams have better support and access to different details that they weren’t paying attention to before, like altitude, and when you’re at the top level, it’s all about little little details that can allow you to become slightly better. We see the importance of altitude camps, and how riders can now go to the mountains to gain those little percentages that make you stronger.”

So yeah, everyone is doing it, and it seems to work. But how exactly does altitude training improve performance?

How Does Altitude Training Work?

While altitude training is becoming essential to cycling success, the training method isn’t new. In the 2010s, Team Sky popularized altitude training camps by also taking riders to Teide, Spain.

Training and sleeping at altitudes above 2,000 meters (6,562 feet) boosts the body’s ability to absorb oxygen, improving athletic performance. Spending more time at higher altitudes increases the production of red blood cells, allowing riders to sustain longer and more strenuous efforts at lower altitudes. This is why altitude training has evolved as a preparation strategy for pro cyclists competing in the WorldTour.

“In the simplest terms, altitude training is like a natural form of blood doping,” says altitude researcher and current Director of Science at USADA, Laura Lewis, Ph.D. (Yes, this is slightly ironic, since Lewis’s two research areas are altitude and antidoping.) “The body’s response to a low oxygen environment—which happens at higher altitudes—is to increase the production of red blood cells so that more oxygen can be delivered around the body. Once these red blood cells are made, they live for about 120 days, so when you return to sea level you have an extra amount of blood than normal which can help you perform faster or for longer.”

“Many of the adaptations to altitude remain (at least for several weeks) when you return to sea level allowing you to perform better at a competition or train at a higher level and then reap the rewards later. In fact, training at altitude to improve performance at sea level is much more common.

Do simulated altitude training and simulators work?

Spending the night at 2,500 meters is ideal, but traveling isn’t—not always, at least, even if you are a big-budget team. But there are also altitude simulation products and services like altitude tents and altitude rooms that make the marginal gain more accessible.

When they can’t swing the two or three-week trip, teams like Visma-Lease a Bike use products like Box Altitude, an Australian company that creates sleeping and training rooms that replicate being at high altitudes for riders to use at home. “Altitude training is indispensable for our riders. The team’s busy season makes it challenging to fit in training camps. We have seen that it has led to better performance on the bike,” says Head of Performance Mathieu Heijboer.

In fact, sleeping at a manufactured high altitude while training at sea level may be even more beneficial than living and training at altitude. Many of the riders at these altitude camps will descend to more manageable altitudes for their interval sessions. “The concept of ‘live high, train low’ refers to sleeping at altitude and training at sea level or a lower altitude,” says Lewis. “It became popular in the 1990s when researchers found runners that adopted this method performed better post-altitude than those that lived and trained high. This was because it can be difficult to do the real high quality training work at higher altitudes, but you still want to sleep high so that you get the adaptive benefits.”

Lewis notes that in the initial study on living high and training low, the athletes slept at natural altitude and traveled down the mountain to a lower altitude for training. “This can be difficult to achieve logistically as in some places it would take many hours to travel to a lower altitude for training,” she says. “Therefore, ‘live high train low’ can be achieved by using simulated altitude—altitude houses or tents—and training at sea level.”

“Simulated altitude has been shown to produce similar benefits in terms of red blood cell production as natural altitude and for some people it's their only option,” she adds. “The key is to make sure you receive enough of a ‘hypoxic dose’—getting enough exposure hours in the tent at a sufficient altitude.”

There are even “altitude hotels” out there, appearing in Instagram and Facebook ads targeting amateur cyclists everywhere. So, should you be looking into altitude training to get faster and stronger? Maybe. But it’s not your first stop on the quest for fitness.

“Altitude training can be really rewarding if you have a good plan, especially if you can take some time off and go with a group to live the professional athlete life for a few weeks,” says Lewis. “Altitude locations often involve a lot of climbing by default so it's also a good way to find your climbing legs! Be wary of trying to fit too much into a busy working life though. Altitude is an extra stressor so if you try to do too much you can just end up digging yourself into a whole. You need to be in an adaptive state to benefit from altitude, which basically means you need to be healthy, eating and sleeping well, and periodizing your training before a camp like this makes sense.”

This story first appeared on Bicycling Magazine. 

Racing News Editor, Bicycling

Rosael is a writer and editor based in Philadelphia (Lenape land), where she enjoys the city’s obsession with sports and its accessible trail systems and cycling community. She has a bachelor’s in Communications and Journalism from the University of Puerto Rico.

Contributing Writer

Molly writes about cycling, nutrition and training with an emphasis on bringing more women into sport. She's the author of nine books including the Shred Girls series and is the founder of Strong Girl Publishing. She co-hosts The Consummate Athlete Podcast and spends most of her free time biking and running on trails, occasionally joined by her mini-dachshund.

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