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Secrets to Oympic Success: Training at Altitude

Long used by Navy SEALs and professional athletes to get a competitive advantage, high-altitude training is now available to regular guys—no mountain climb or plane ticket required.

Have you ever wondered why Kenyans tend to medal time after time in the Olympic Track and Field events (Current 2012 medal count: 14)? And why the athletes who train there often cross the finish line first in major marathons? 

The answer may have far less to do with drive and determination—and everything to do with elevation. 

“It’s due to the fact that winning athletes often live or train at altitude (Kenya's highest point is Mount Kenya) where the air is much thinner and their bodies have to work harder to run, lift, throw or jump,” says Bruce Kirk, a high-altitude training specialist who helped pioneer the concept of coaching Olympic-level gymnasts at 10,000 feet. “When athletes return to sea level after a stint at elevation, they’re significantly stronger and more powerful due to the increased mass of their circulating red blood cells.”

That effect only lasts around 10 days to two weeks, but that’s long enough to give most athletes the competitive edge in competition. As for the rest of us? Well, very few regular guys (outside of the mountain time zone) are going to go jetting off to the Rockies to train for a month in order to see a boost in our performance—no matter how impressive that might turn out to be. The alternative for those of us in the rest of the U.S. is to simulate the experience of working out at elevation by using high altitude training equipment.

The Fundamentals

“The basic concept behind simulated altitude training is it provides you with the advantage of living and training in the mountains,” says Matt Eckert, an executive at Hypoxico, one of the nation’s only altitude training equipment manufacturers. “The effects altitude training may have on your body include an increase of endurance, reduced recovery time, weight loss, as well as a natural increase in HGH and red blood cells. Your capillaries, mitochondria, blood and oxygen capacities also change, letting you workout harder.”

So how does the equipment actually simulate going for a jog or playing a game of basketball on a mountain peak? Hypoxico’s gear works by producing oxygen-reduced air to simulate altitudes of up to 21,000 feet—that’s slightly greater than those at summit of Mount McKinley or Camp II at Everest. The version meant for home use includes a generator, tent and a workout kit (mask, pulsox, breathing bags). To get started, you’d turn the unit on, adjust the altitude setting and wear the mask while biking, using an elliptical or a treadmill. While you exercise, you breathe normally into a mask, which is connected to a generator the size of a business traveler’s carry-on luggage and pumps oxygen to you.

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