Every morning Haile Gebrselassie got up to go to school like any child his age. After a brief breakfast and with the books as a company, the ninth child of a family of peasants traveled the ten kilometers that separated him from the place where he had to study. There, at 2000 meters high, after finishing classes, the same route awaited him in the other direction and again, running barefoot.
Years before that Ethiopian was born and became a world reference of the endurance running races, the Olympic Games of Mexico had been held in 1968. The situation of that event had something peculiar: the city where most competitions would be held is hanging at 2240 meters above sea level. The battle for oxygen began.
At first, it was decided to build high-performance centers around the world to simulate the air conditions at these levels: the oxygen pressure is lower and therefore, that key component for life and sports reaches the muscles becomes a more complicated task than at sea level. But the athletes had to get used to surrender up there, at the height where the medals would be played.
With the scientific research it was observed that from seven days of stay in height adaptations were obtained in the red blood cells that favored the oxygenation of the muscles. It was thought: if athletes train with oxygen deficit and their bodies are able to optimize their use, when they go down to sea level, with more of that element in the air, they perform better.
And so, thousands of athletes of all kind of sports began to go up the mountains to teach their bodies to capture more of that “invisible gold”. However, the great scientist of the sport realized something: if oxygen is lacking, it is not possible to reach such a high intensity as if that element is abundant. Therefore, if training at high levels the quality of a training is lower. The sports centers in height began to tremble.
At a time when the performance improvement of any athlete is mainly measured by the quality (intensity) of their sessions (compared to the importance of quantity, time or mileage, for years) that workouts do not become so effective due to the impossibility of reaching the adequate demand caused the questioning of the training over 1600m altitude (level from which the oxygen pressure begins to be felt in the body significantly).
And then the big question: how to benefit from the positive effect of the lack of oxygen that is breathed in high altitude at the same time that you get the benefit of training at the optimum intensity? The answer was in the combination of both factors.
In those Olympic Games of Mexico, the African dominance in the endurance running races began the long road that has maintained until today, leaving any white athlete as a mere spectator while the Ethiopians and Kenyans take the medals.
And it was precisely a neighbor of Haile, a Kenyan, Amos Biwott, in the 3000 meters hurdles who initiated that undisputed domain with which Gebrselassie grew and dreamed. And while the smiling Ethiopian was adding world records one after another, it was discovered in parallel how to combine both factors, how to join altitude and intensity, how to capture more oxygen and at the same time how to exercise with the highest quality: that protocol was coined with the term “train down and recover up”.
Since then, places like the island of Tenerife are a reference for the possibility it offer to get the perfect combination. An example is the professional cycling teams as the Sky who are living during some months of every year in the National Parador over 2000m of altitude. From there in a few minutes they can be at sea level, where they train at the appropriate intensities to improve their performance, climbing very steep and long hills increasing their muscular endurance (key to achieve the highest performance level) and doing it at the highest quality (intensity) in each session. At the end of their physical effort they rest up there, above the clouds, while their organisms create more red blood cells because of the scarce amount (pressure) of oxygen in the air, when the intensity of their movements no longer matters, when they only want to teach their bodies to take better advantage of each milliliter of that “invisible gold” breathed.
Training down and recovering up is a trend that has been shown to be effective. Of course, not as effective as the way Ethiopians and Kenyans live every day of their lives, the one with which trained, rested and grew Gebrselassie. Thanks to having been born in the highlands of Ethiopia, Haile started every race with the advantage of being adapted to run surrounded by little oxygen. Then, faithful to his dream of being Olympic Champion, the athlete of the eternal smile began to make his trips to the school a pure training and from his bare feet he went to his flying shoes to conquer record after record, always grateful to the place in who was born, always smiling in each of his steps, inside and outside the athletic tracks.