The benefits of spending 12 hours a day for a total of four weeks in an altitude tent can't be ignored. But it can be hard to get that much time in, so living and training high remains an attractive, if tough, proposition for triathletes. “We almost treat the two areas separately,” says Pringle. “There’s an overlap of both areas, of course, but there are distinctly different responses – one is mainly in the muscle [training] and one is mainly in the blood [living/sleeping]. Sleeping at altitude is a year-round strategy and we encourage as much exposure as possible. But when it comes to training camps at altitude, we’re a lot more tightly focused. You need to make subtle changes to the training and you have
to be precise. Above all, it must be driven by an understanding of the individual’s physiological profile.”
This is where the support provided by the EIS comes in. Not only can they tailor altitude-specific training plans, but they can also monitor the adaptations. Blood tests are taken around four to six weeks before the camp to pick up key mediators of adaptation potential. So if an athlete has inadequate iron stores (serum ferritin), they know that it’s likely he or she will struggle to get gains with altitude exposure. That’s because any new red cells will have low haemoglobin content and therefore won’t function properly. “Probably the most important test we do is the haemoglobin mass method, which measures the amount of haemoglobin in the body in absolute terms,” explains Pringle. “That’s the exact thing you’re trying to increase.” By doing the same test during and after the altitude camp, each athlete’s physiological gains can be quantified.
Unfortunately, though, a percentage increase in haemoglobin mass doesn’t allow for the same increase in oxygen-carrying capacity. “We tend to see about half of it come back,” says Pringle. “For every 6% increase in haemoglobin mass – the typical gain from altitude – you tend to see around a 3 to 4% increase in VO2 max.” That’s most likely down to the different stages that oxygen has to pass through from mouth to muscle – the lungs, the heart and so on. So even though you’re increasing the capacity in one part of that system, that doesn’t necessarily mean that other aspects are going to be increased by the same amount – if at all. And even in terms of increased red blood cell count alone, some people respond better than others.
All this technical stuff is important, of course, but what does it actually feel like to train high? And can you actually feel the benefits when you get back? In Dave Scott’s experience, it’s exhausting – but worth it. “If you’re training at that high end and you’re experiencing that muscular overload, that feeling that you just can’t suck in enough air, it feels far worse at altitude. But when you come off that hill climb back at sea level and you get that same feeling, when it hurts like fury, that’s when you feel the benefit. The sensation of that degree of suffering is a bit more familiar so you can feel as though you can recover better, which is what’s most important.”
Scott also warns that you can do too much, especially in the first few weeks. Apart from the obvious risks of altitude sickness and dehydration, it’s easy to completely shatter yourself and thus negate any potential benefits. “I’ve seen enough people who are overzealous when they get here,” he says. “They jump straight into their sea-level programme. Generally, they can get by for a few days and then all of a sudden on day four, they feel like someone hit them with a sledgehammer.”
Assuming they don’t collapse in the first weeks, the final thing athletes need to consider is how long the benefits last when they come return to sea level. After all, there’s no point putting in the time at altitude only to lose the effects in the run-up to the race. Studies have shown that the boost in haemoglobin mass stays around for around three weeks after exposure. “But a lot of people say you have this window of opportunity for performance – the first 72 hours back and then 10 to 20 days later – when the effects remain at their peak,” says Pringle. “So you’d prefer athletes to use altitude pretty much all the way up to their competition point. For athletes returning from overseas, we often use a tent and exercise sessions in hypoxia for a few days to keep the stimulus going right up until the race.”
Still, for the Brits at least, it’s left up to the individual. What works for Alistair Brownlee may not work for Helen Jenkins, for example. “I certainly wouldn’t suggest for anyone to change their plans,” Pringle cautions. “In all cases, they will have spent a career working
out what works best from them. They’ll have a tried-and-tested altitude strategy.”
However they approach the descent, it’s pretty clear that altitude adaptation will give the British triathletes lining up in Hyde Park in August the best possible chance of ascending that Olympic podium. Jonny Brownlee certainly feels it makes a difference.
“I spent a month in St Moritz last summer. It was tough the whole time, but Alistair and I will be looking to repeat it. It really worked and I arrived in peak condition. And I’m hoping the same will happen this summer!”
USING AN ALTITUDE TENT
Illegal blood doping is so yesterday. These days the best way to boost EPO and VO2 max without too much effort is by exposing yourself… to simulated altitude. Everyone’s doing it, from marathon runners and mountaineers to those overpaid Premier League footballers. Hypoxic masks are one option, allowing you to ‘train high’ in the comfort of the gym. But the most common approach is to set up an altitude tent at home. It might look just like a normal tent, but it actually fits over the bed and is filled with oxygen-depleted air from a hypoxic generator.
The altitude tents that grace the home of Alistair and Jonny Brownlee, supplied by The Altitude Centre (www.altitudecentre.com), each pump in 100 litres of thin air every minute to ensure freshness and safety. They can change the concentration of oxygen at will, so altitude can be built up slowly. And the tents aren’t completely sealed, so there’s no chance that the brothers will get shrink-wrapped.
A hypoxic generator costs £3,600, which makes it a serious investment. And it’s fair to say your partner will take some convincing. So what are they actually like to use? “The tent is very easy to set up,” says Alistair. “The only two problems are that the generator is noisy, so it has to be in another room, and the tent can get very hot. The fact it gets hot can leave you dehydrated. But if it ever starts affecting my sleep, and consequently my training, it’s not worth using so I’ll switch it off.”
And before anyone thinks about reporting the boys to the authorities, let’s be clear: these tents are perfectly legal. The World Anti-Doping Agency did explore the issue but decided not to include ‘artificially induced altitude’ on their prohibited list.