Ever wondered why Kenyans and Ethiopians are so successful at Olympic track events—or why the athletes who train in those countries 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.
“Winning athletes often live or train at altitude 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? Very few regular guys are going to jet off to the Rockies to train for a month in order to see a boost in our performance—no matter how impressive that improvement might be.
Fortunately, there's an alternative: high-altitude training equipment.
“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, an altitude training equipment manufacturer. “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.”
Hypoxico’s gear produces 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, an athlete turns on the unit, adjusts 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.
Eckert advises doing altitude training about three to five days per week, in sessions ranging from 30 minutes to one hour. He explains that the intensity and elevation of the workout is dictated by the SpO2 (saturation percentage of O2) of the blood, which is derived from a device called a pulse-oximeter worn on a finger. It’s also best to start training at roughly 65% of your maximum sea level ability and work your way up to 100% over the course of a 10-day period.
“If done continuously—sleeping at altitude and having normal, sea level workouts—you can expect to begin seeing results in only two to three weeks and, after three months, you should experience the full development of red blood cells in your body,” Eckert says.
Why It Works
It may seem like a long way to go to shave a few seconds of personal best time—and it is. Five years ago, only professional athletes such as Olympians like Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte, UFC fighters, cyclists, swimmers, triathletes and mountaineers, were known to be using this type of equipment.
They weren't even the first. “Navy SEAL teams have weight rooms that they can make equivalent to 10,000+ feet by decreasing the oxygen levels/air pressure,” says Stew Smith, a former SEAL. “And now, military SPC OPS teams also use high-altitude training to prepare for deployments in the mountains of Afghanistan.”
But lately, more and more non-military and non-professional athletes—fitness buffs with a type-A personalities, CEOs (and reportedly, even celebs like Usher)—have been sleeping and training in altitude chambers.
How It Changes Your Body
Eckert has seen consistent results among his “average guy” clients, whose ages range from 40 through to their 60s. By sleeping at altitude, oxygen utilization abilities and the ability to push harder during workouts are enhanced, resulting in increased power. Lactic acid threshold also increases, allowing the “average guy” to push himself harder during workouts. As well, these clients sleep deeper at night due to an increase in red blood cells, and the result is a refreshed start to the day and an increase in productivity.
Eckert has also seen his client guys “drop a ton of weight,” saying it’s not uncommon for them to lose 10 to 20 pounds. He adds that one individual in his late forties has also seen a large natural increase in HGH.
When using this type of equipment to sleep at altitude, it's as simple as zipping into the tent and starting at a low elevation setting of around 3,000 feet. Over the course of a week or two, Eckert recommends increasing the elevation to the optimal elevation of 9,000 feet.
Despite all of the positives, there’s one major challenge: the temptation to sleep in the tent at simulated altitudes that are too high, too fast. Many have the mentality to get in the tent and go from sea level to 9,000 feet in only a few seconds and their bodies react by developing signs of acute mountain sickness—shortness of breath, rapid heart rate, headaches, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, and fatigue.
With the ever-growing popularity of altitude training, it should come as no surprise that simulation equipment is becoming easier to find for home use.
Regardless of where you’re training, however, the important thing to remember is that you start slowly before gradually building up the altitude—and amping up your training efforts.