Altitude training—it’s not just for elite athletes anymore. What with the rise of altitude chambers and hypoxic workout rooms in your local gym, oxygen-deprivation hypoxicator masks, and even hypoxic bed chambers (Michael Phelps slept in one in his run-up to the 2012 London Olympics), amateur athletes are now using these tools to try and train just as well as their professional idols.
“The ‘us and them’ division is slowly being eroded away,” says Richard Pullan, founder of London’s hypoxic gym, The Altitude Centre, which works with Hypoxico (the leading manufacturer of all things hypoxic) and has about 60 members who train daily in its 2,700 meters and 14.9 percent oxygen environment. “Increasingly, amateur athletes are styling their training around that of elite athletes. And many want to see how good they can be if they have access to the same tools that elites and professionals do.”
Yet despite the availability of new hypoxic toys, most recreational athletes have yet to really transcend the level of elite times that altitude training would seem to suggest is possible. And much of the reason for this has to do with how hypoxia is used at the amateur and professional levels.
“Strategies around the implementation of hypoxic training protocols are quite complex,” cautions Blake McLean, a sports scientist with Australia’s Wests Tigers rugby team, who has done several hypoxia studies on team sports in affiliation with the Australian Catholic University. “Hypoxic training can actually have a negative influence on physiology/performance if implemented incorrectly.”
Not only that, but professional athletes and their coaches and advisers tend to pay closer attention to other influential factors like nutrition, which can help control breathlessness and avoid possible energy deficiencies. “There is very strong evidence that iron is often a key dietary supplement while at altitude,” says Chris Gore, head of physiology at the Australian Institute of Sport and author of numerous studies on altitude training.
“Anyone planning to use altitude training should have a blood screen for their iron levels and should seek medical advice about the need to supplement with iron or not.”
All this means that athletes who do not screen for iron, or who forego a specialist to monitor their program, may find themselves not only slower but at greater risk of potential health ranging from anemia, to the loss of muscle mass to, ironically, developing a low tolerance to altitude.
Pullan also explains that another misstep among amateurs is “the higher, the better.” But higher altitude doesn’t mean better training conditions. Often the quality of training, i.e. the ability to train intensity, is compromised by a lack of oxygen.
So the best way to maximize your time in that hypoxic chamber is to have yourself evaluated beforehand. Screen for iron and other supplements, and put together a protocol that’s tailored just for you. “Amateurs know a lot, but there can be common misconceptions of ‘one size fits all,’” points out Pullan. “If you’ve got PhD-level sports scientists working on your performance on a number of different levels, you’re going to be better than even a very talented amateur who has a good grasp of performance enhancement.”