By CTS Pro Coach Jim Rutberg
With the velodrome events about to begin at the Rio Olympics, at least two teams (Team USA and Team Canada) have benefitted from an effective but little-known training technique called hyperoxic training. Athletes who have traveled between sea level and moderate altitude (5,000-10,000 feet above sea level) know the impact less oxygen per breath can have on performance. Power at lactate threshold decreases, you breathe faster, your heart rate increases, and you get out of breath faster. All these things make training at altitude more difficult, at least until the body adapts. But these same dynamics can be used in reverse by training with supplemental oxygen.[blog_promo promo_categories=”coaching” ids=”” /]
Supplemental oxygen training isn’t something you’re going to see advertised at your local bike shop or fitness center, but stick with me because there’s advice specifically for you coming up later in this article. Meanwhile, back to supplemental oxygen training, which has been used for many years by elite athletes at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, and by the Canadian Women’s Olympic Track Team at our training facility in their lead up to the 2016 Olympic Games. Here’s how it works:
The Basics of Altitude Science
The percentage of oxygen in the air, relative to other gasses, remains relatively constant worldwide at 21%. It doesn’t matter if you’re at the top of Mt. Everest or the bottom of Death Valley. What changes with altitude is air pressure. When you’re at higher altitude there is lower air pressure, so the molecules of oxygen are farther apart. That means that for a given volume of air, there are fewer oxygen molecules in it at 8,000 feet above sea level than there are at sea level. As a result, when you breathe in a relatively fixed volume of air into your lungs and there are fewer oxygen molecules in that volume of air, less oxygen gets into your blood.
In an effort to keep your oxygen intake steady, your body responds by increasing your respiration rate and your heart rate. Pretty quickly you also increase your plasma volume, and over time (about 3 weeks), your body adapts to living at higher altitude by producing more red blood cells. This is the effect athletes are after when they travel to altitude to train for a few weeks, because upon returning to sea level you inspire more oxygen per breath and you have more red blood cells to carry it to working muscles.
How Hyperoxic Training Works[iframe id=”https://www.youtube.com/embed/RDSLpton6i4″ align=”center” mode=”normal” autoplay=”no”]
The trouble with traveling to altitude is that an athlete’s ability to train diminishes while they are adapting to the altitude. Power at lactate threshold decreases by about 10%, compared to sea level, at altitudes between 6,000-9,000 feet. Recovery is hindered as well, meaning an athlete is less capable of handling a high training workload because they can’t recover from the workouts as easily. Some athletes have disturbed sleep, which further compounds the recovery problem. One solution, at least to the training workload issue, is to train with supplemental oxygen.[blog_promo promo_categories=”bucket list” ids=”” /]
Supplemental oxygen training is basically the application of the “Live High, Train Low” concept for an athlete already living at altitude. Instead of training with 21% oxygen, the partial pressure of oxygen can be significantly increased. In some research studies, subjects were breathing air with a 50-70% partial pressure of oxygen. In contrast, athletes at sea level adapt the concept by using altitude tents to breathe an air mixture with a reduced partial pressure of oxygen, simulating altitude, while living at sea level.
Athletes don’t use supplemental oxygen for every workout, but rather focus on workouts where oxygen delivery and high power outputs are crucial. Members of the Canadian Track Cycling Team were at CTS performing VO2 max workouts with supplemental oxygen. Over at the Olympic Training Center, CTS Coach and physiology lab director Lindsay Hyman uses a state-of-the-art sealed room, designed by Hypoxico, which can be set at a wide range of altitudes, temperatures, and humidities. The additional benefit of the altitude- and climate-controlled room is that athletes don’t have to wear face masks.
Does Supplemental Oxygen Training Work?
Yes. When an athlete trains with supplemental oxygen their power output at a given heart rate increases. They are able to produce a greater workload, which leads to a bigger training stimulus. However, athletes living at altitude face the challenge of recovering from these hard workouts while breathing thinner, high-altitude air.
As a result, supplemental oxygen training has to be done conservatively and an athlete has to carefully monitor their recovery. Would it work for an athlete at sea level? It should, especially considering that many supplemental oxygen training environments are set up to replicate the oxygen that would theoretically be available well below sea level.[blog_promo promo_categories=”camp” ids=”” /]
What Can You Do If You Don’t Have Supplemental Oxygen?
While all this supplemental oxygen stuff is interesting and cool, it’s not a training tool that’s readily available to most athletes. Although the technique has been around since the mid 1990’s it hasn’t spread further than elite-level training centers, at least not yet. Even without supplemental oxygen, you can apply some of the principles discussed above to your training. The primary goal of supplemental oxygen training is to increase the workload an athlete can perform in a workout. Here are some other ways you can do that:
Uphill Sprints: Add resistance to your sprinting workout by incorporating a hill. You can either start the sprint on flat ground and then begin to climb, or perform the whole sprint on a hill. This will keep you from gaining so much speed that you’re spinning out the gear.
Lengthen recovery periods in interval workouts: A common interval set is a number of 2minute maximum intensity PowerIntervals, separated by 2minutes of easy spinning recovery. If you have 10 of these intervals scheduled and you’re power outputs are dropping, lengthening the recovery period to 2:30 or 3:00 can help you get a few more high-quality efforts completed.
Motorpacing: While this is also an advanced training technique, it’s far easier to accomplish than supplemental oxygen training. Reducing the air resistance by riding in the draft of a scooter increases the speed you can sustain, which also means you can cover more distance during a given time. This is important because power declines over time, so rather than ride 4 hours to achieve a specific energy output (kilojoules), you can get it done in 3 hours at a higher power output. Motorpacing also provides the opportunity to do efforts outside the draft, starting at higher speeds. For instance, you can be riding in the draft at 30mph and then accelerate next to the scooter for 30 seconds. To do this you have to hit the wind going 30mph, and the power required to maintain that speed and stay with the motor is hard to replicate on your own. If you don’t have access to a scooter and a person willing and well trained to operate it, you can accomplish a lot of these things at the back of a fast-moving group ride.
What about “Altitude Masks”?
Those masks you see people running around with or using while weight lifting or Crossfit do not change the partial pressure of the air you’re breathing, so they neither simulate hypoxic (low oxygen/high altitude) nor hyperoxic (high oxygen/low altitude) conditions. You can read more about what those masks do and don’t do in this article.