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It is well known that the performance of athletes who suddenly move to a location at a higher altitude than they are used to will suffer; when sports events such as the Olympics are held in a high altitude location, athletes often move to the area much earlier in order to adapt.

The question I haven't been able to find an answer to is: How big of an altitude difference is significant? E.g. Will a sprinter who lives and trains at sea level feel any different competing at 200 - 300 m above sea level?

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3 Answers 3

300m should not make that much of an effect for average sports, but higher than that, the effect grows gradually, there are reports of people suffering from altitude sickness when ventured higher than 2400m.

Altitude training has been used by athletes from many years now. At higher altitudes, due to the reduced pressure, it becomes harder for the lungs to diffuse oxygen into the blood. Hence in order to compensate, the blood inturn increases its hemoglobin capacity to try to absorb more oxygen. Hence when you train at higher altitudes, your body will then be able to perform better at lower altitudes immediately after.

In your questions when athletes have to compete at higher altitudes, there is a slight effect depending on the altitude, hence for their body to adapt and perform at those altitudes, they shift and start training at that altitude before the event.

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Bicycling can easily quantify this with modern power meters. This site has a calculator that lets you see the loss in power and speed as altitude increases. And you can compare acclimatized versus non-acclimatized athletes.

http://www.cyclingpowerlab.com/effectsofaltitude.aspx

As you can see by the chart, the change is fairly insignificant at 500m or less.

Interestingly in cycling, you actually gain speed at altitude because the thinner air offers reduced drag, which more than makes up for your reduced power.

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Purely based on the density of oxygen, the usual rule is that you lose 2.5% of the oxygen for every 1000 feet (304 meters) of altitude. That probably isn't significant for recreational athletes, but to world-class athletes it may be significant.

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