Is Hyperoxic Training The Next Big Thing?

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By CTS Pro Coach Jim Rutberg

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.

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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 this week at our training facility as well. Here’s how it works:

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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.

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How hyperoxic training works

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.

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.

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Athletes don’t use supplemental oxygen for every workout, but rather focus on workouts where oxygen delivery and high power outputs are crucial. This week, for instance, 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.

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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.

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Comments 15

  1. I’m in the middle of reading the book ” what doesnt kill us”, what I understand so far is that you can also use pre-workout hyperventilation to increase your exercise performance. While everybody talks about more O2, it’s mostly about less CO2 (which your body uses to regulate it’s breathing).
    As I understand it, by removing CO2 from your system pre-workout you have a bigger buffer before you reach your limit.. With strenght training, I improved some exercises by 50% more reps! Try it, it’s free, it’s amazing!

  2. Pingback: There’s New Data on Training with Supplemental Oxygen - Bib Trend

  3. Pingback: There’s New Data on Training with Supplemental Oxygen - love my health

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  5. If you are interested in buying checkout used by the Finnish x-country ski team and the Olympic committee. Doesn’t have the big bulky oxygen bags the other systems use and are available in a mobile unit in a backpack that they use outdoors

  6. I live in Colorado Springs and see a lot of people wearing the masks while they workout. Is there any benefit, at this altitude, to wearing the mask during a lifting workout? It doesn’t fit with the “live high, train low” methodology you talked about.

  7. Pingback: Do Altitude Training Masks Work for Endurance Athletes? - CTS

  8. Interesting, I was looking at setting up one of these rigs back in the early 2000’s. One of the most difficult things was trying to find a distributor to buy the Oxygen tanks from for delivery and the valve system that would simulate percentage of Oxygen mix from the ambient air.

  9. Re: Hyperoxic Training. Thinking the bottom line is do more work in less time gives more adaption. Why not just do intervals with an oxygen bottle and the nose thing like they give you in ER?

  10. How does training with the Altitude Training Mask compare. I use the mask for both cycling and running. Not sure if it has improved my performance output but it sure makes my breathing stronger. Thanks CTS.

    1. Post

      There are two types of altitude training masks: ones that enable you to breathe a simulated altitude air mixture with reduced partial pressure of oxygen, and ones that just make it harder to breathe ambient air. From the science we’ve read, neither appear to be significantly effective for improving endurance performance, or if they are the improvements are only significant in a very narrow range of applications. It falls into the category of: might work a little bit, but for most athletes who still have a large potential for improvement there are more effective ways to spend your time and effort to improve performance. – Jim Rutberg, CTS Pro Coach

  11. Have you seen or know of studies on improving performance in riders/athletes with one lung or reduced capacity in lung(s)? Lost right lung in my late 20s to Cancer. I’m now 51 and am 5 years into weight loss, get-in-shape program, 2 years into serious cycling. Made a good deal of progress but now I want to push for better results if possible and see how far I can push to answer question how my condition limits me, if at all. Thoughts, suggestions on where I might find info?? Thanks!

    1. You could check out inspiratory muscle training. It would probably be beneficial. You can find the device on Amazon for about $50. All it takes is about 5 minutes a day. Perform 1 set of 30 maximal inhalations with the resistance set at either easy or medium to get started. Do not purchase the altitude mask from Nike it is very different and will not be nearly as beneficial. I’m getting my Master’s from Indiana University in Exercise Physiology and will be using inspiratory muscle training in my thesis.

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