Athletes can take their workout to new heights at an altitude training room in the Bay Area.
The recently opened Air Fit, run by fitness company Leisure Sports, is a 1,100-square-foot room equipped with a massive compressor and air tank that reduce oxygen levels in the room. In theory, this allows athletes to improve fitness without having to increase exercise time, potentially lessening the muscle and joint strain that comes with longer sessions.
“The idea of hypoxic training is that the body has to work harder to do the same amount of activity,” says Matt Formato, business development director at Hypoxico Altitude Training Systems. The equipment manufacturer, known for its altitude sleep tents and workout masks, helped Leisure Sports develop Air Fit. The two companies first teamed up fall 2011 to create The Summit Training Studio, a 400-square-foot altitude workout room at ClubSport in Tigard, Oregon.
Beyond the increased calorie burn, Formato, along with Dennis Dumas, director of wellness at Leisure Sports, says that training at altitude can improve lactate thresholds, oxygen utilization, and metabolic rates, possibly increasing red blood cell counts as well, which can afford athletes a competitive edge both at altitude and sea level.
Despite such claims, most altitude training research focuses on the effects of living in the mountains and training at lower elevations, rather than on interval training in hypoxic environments. The live-high-train-low approach is the preferred altitude training program for elite athletes, explains Jay Kearney, a former physiologist with the United States Olympic Committee who works with Osprey Leadership Consulting as a performance adviser.
Some sports physiologists are not quite convinced that hypoxic interval training can provide all the same physical changes.
“The bottom line is that one cannot expect to see an increase in red blood cells or an improvement in lactic acid metabolism when the ‘dose’ is based on a two-hour workout, even if that workout is done three to five times a week,” says Randy Wilber, senior sports physiologist with the United States Olympic Committee.
But Formato and Dumas counter that the science of altitude training rooms is so new researchers haven’t had time to publish their findings on living high and training low. Some early studies point toward benefits in oxygen utilization and sprint performance, but these are still ongoing.
Because few nonprofessional athletes are blessed enough by geography to have access to high-altitude training and its benefits, Air Fit has a ready audience. The new facility opened this month at the Quad, a Pleasanton, California, gym. There, as many as 27 members at a time can take high-altitude classes that include circuit training, rowing, spinning, and one-on-one sessions.
Unlike athletes who use altitude masks attached to a machine, users of Air Fit don’t have to be tied to a stationary bike or treadmill. “We wanted to offer something no one else was,” Dumas explains. “It’s not just a room built for hypoxic training, but it’s built for high intensity, functional training.”
Many of the Air Fit classes—Summit Yoga and Mile High Circuit, for instance—will be programmed to simulate altitudes of 5,000 to 6,000 feet. Oxygen levels can be set to approximate those at altitudes as high as 22,000 feet, but Dumas says that such extreme settings will be used exclusively by elite athletes training to summit Everest or other major peaks.