Living at altitude - Do you ever fully adapt?

Just curious if someone moving from sea level to moderate altitude ever fully adapts. I have lived my whole live at sea level but recently moved to 5000’. I have lived at altitude off and on for a couple of years and pretty consistently for the last several months. I still seem to notice the effects of altitude when working above FTP. It is very hard to judge however since I have not trained consistently for a very long time but still remember what my numbers used to be.

Anyway would love to hear from anyone that has lived low and then moved high and how they judge their adaptation.

You do and it just becomes your new normal.
I moved from suburb Dallas to Central Oregon (650 to 4100’) 4 yrs ago.

Whenever I go to sea level, I feel there ‘s a lot more air :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye:and i can beat my running PR without even trying.
There’s a boost on the bike as well. On bike leg of IMAZ in Tempe (~1100’) coming down i found that coming to lower altitude helps. Another benefit: i couldn’t practice long downhills and getting comfy with high speed and crosswinds and now i can. Unlike going up, that’s something you cannot do on a trainer or in low altitude/flat places.

Now there are many factors besides altitude like how much you train, getting older, temperature, etc.
There are lots of hills/mountains here so one thing i’ve noticed is that I care about the vertical climbs of a ride / race a lot more than its distance.

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Moved from Houston (40 yrs at less than 100ft) to north Colorado (3yrs at 5000ft). It took 6 months just to be able to sit on the couch and not randomly gasp for air. Going up stairs was torture.

I did Unbound in June (1150-ish ft) and I felt really strong. It’s aIso not a huge deal to adjust to the higher elevations (8k ft) for races in Ned and Steamboat.


Fully adapt? I would say yes. Is the amount of time you can spend above threshold the same? I would say no. One generally has fewer and shorter burning matches.

I live on Denver and still notice a drop in performance when I ride in Breckenridge (9200 ft vs. 5200).

Back in my college days, I was an athlete at nearly sea level. I spent summers in Reno (4500 ft). It still took me a couple of weeks before the running training RPE started to normalize. When I returned to campus, endurance and tempo levels of running were much easier. Sprinting didn’t get any easier.


Humans can settle up to 5500m (18000ft) so you will adapt (or?). How long it takes? X months. Can you perform the same afterwards? In theory yes but not studied enough.

Probably in about 6 months you will get as much adaptation as is physically possible for your body. Once your red blood cell counts re-adjusts for the reduced oxygen, you will have about as much as you are going to get.

There are limits to what your body can adapt to though. Your balance of red-to-white/other stuff blood cells can only adjust so much, so depending on your altitude, your cardiovascular system may never be able to deliver as much oxygen to the muscles.

Think of it another way, nobody has the ability to live for extended periods of time at the top of Mount Everest because your body can only adapt so much without compromise.

You will adapt to the elevation, but “adapting” doesn’t mean equalizing. An elevation “adapted” athlete will see less of a decline in power relative to their power at sea level vs a non-adapted athlete. But they will still see a decline. Fully adapted at 5,000 feet you’re down about 5.5% vs sea level power. Or to put it another way if you were to go from 5k’ down to sea level you’d see a boost in FTP. If you live and train at altitude your training zones should all be based off of your current FTP at altitude, not some FTP you brought with you from sea level based on training you did a long time ago.


That is interesting since I ride primarily between 4500’-5600’. Now I have something else to blame for my meager FTP beside old age :grinning:


Not sure if that is correct.
If you are down on power are you really adapted?
If we take a local from a 5000m settlement and test him at home and sea level do we see a meaningfull difference? If we do can we still say humans can adapt to 5000m?

I would think it could be argued that the adaptations continue a lot longer than 6 months, but you’re probably right on the “easy” gains. I think it’s pretty clear that athletes that have grown up or lived big chunks of their lives at altitude benefit from that.

From what I understand, there is a decent amount of variability in performance drop off at altitude from one athlete to another (even after being “adapted”). I don’t know all the science behind it, but I assume it has to do with the relative strengths of the various mechanisms in the aerobic system. If an athlete’s limiter at sea level is the amount of o2 transported from lungs to blood stream, they might be more affected by altitude vs. an athlete who has less mitochondrial density at the muscular level.

Of course!. Just tested this myself

You will probably still notice a difference in recovery and how hard can you push in the very intense efforts.

Thanks for everyone’s input. Previously when coming from sea level to our mountain house at around 6000’, I would figure about a 5%- 10% decrease in FTP. I would tend to get most of that back pretty quickly (matter or days) for anything approaching FTP. Above FTP I would still notice a persistent drop

I had expected that by living full time at a modest altitude (5000’) I would be able to fully adapt and essentially perform as well as at sea level. Hasn’t really seemed to be the case so far but as I said before I am just coming out of a very long period of no training at all. Also I have been making fairly regular trips back to sea level which I am sure starts to undo some of my adaptations. I was really noticing it a couple of days ago when doing some short intervals just above FTP. Not fun struggling to complete 3 minute intervals at a power below what I used to do 3X20’s at!

Tell us more.
How high do you live?
What tests did you do? Equipment used?

Live at 8000ft and routinely go up to 10-11k in training and above 12k 5-7 times per season. No formal test, equipment was just a power-meter in the bike, and HR monitor.

Major changes:

  • Despite being tired and jet lagged, RHR went down 5-6bpm.
  • Was able to see my HR max with a fraction of the RPE it would take at home. The pain of VO2max efforts at home is real.
  • Recovery is faster. Felt so fresh next day after a hard 4h ride
  • Did 30min at 102% of FTP blind (not looking at bike computer) and felt like sweet spot.
  • Garmin algorithm updated my estimate VO2max by 5.

Just the sensation of being able to breath is very very noticeable. It did completely offset the intense heat and humidity in one of the rides. I wished I had a race scheduled there or something.

Hope this helps.

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You will reach a point where you’ll adapt no more. And, you can’t out-adapt the fact that there’s less Oxygen at Altitude. On a more extreme case, when I go from sea level to Leadville, CO - there’s Roughly 20% less Oxygen. No matter how adapted I am, that’s still less O2 and a lower elevation adjusted FTP.

That’s why live high train low works so well - you can do more work to drive more adaptation at lower altitude where there’s more air.

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Strictly speaking the same amount oxygen 21%, but at a lower pressure :wink:


Mr Pedantic.

Interesting read, not sure I’ve been over 600m except in a plane.


Details, details :wink:

Good figure here, study discussed at the link below


Studies I have seen so far are using people spend some time at altitude. Like weeks or maybe a couple of months. Not the people who are born and live there for their entire life.
If those people are still losing 25% of their aerobic capability it means humans cannot adapt to that altitude and chances of settling there permanently is pretty slim (a 25% loss in aerobic system would impair or kill many people). Definition of fully-adapted or permanently settled is there is no meaningful difference to lower altitudes.
So I was wondering if this is studied extensively. I have seen one where they discovered a unique gene and resulting capability at people living at high Himalayas to consume more O2 in low O2 conditions. If confirmed that might mean those people are actually different and born adapted instead of gaining it after birth. Making the 25% loss even for acclimatized people a reality.