Who uses Altitude Training? Altitude training is frequently used by elite athletes from a variety of summer and winter sports to gain a“competitive edge” when returning to sea level. There are a number of different approaches to altitude training. British Swimming has a structured 3 year plan into Rio which incorporates the ‘Live High, Train High’ approach. This will involve living and training in an Altitude Training Centre, located in Spanish mountains (Sierra Nevada) at a moderate altitude of 2330m. Why? The ability to utilise oxygen from the atmosphere for energy production in the muscle mitrocondria is an important physiological factor for my training and racing. The delivery of this oxygen from my lungs to my muscles is very important and can be measured by my aerobic capacity or vo2max. If an athlete is exposed to altitude, where the partial pressure of oxygen is decreased, it can influence many different functions in the body. The most popular view amongst researchers is the haematological capacity (an increase in the amount of red blood cells to help deliver more oxygen). A decrease in partial pressure means fewer oxygen particles are binding to the haemoglobin (which is something within our red blood cells) resulting in a decrease in oxygen saturation in the body (Sa02). For example at sea level my Sa02 is 98%, at 2330m it is 96%. The body detects this and starts erythropoiesis or the making of more new red blood cells, through producing glycoprotein erythropoietin (EPO). This is produced in the kidneys and the liver. We then have an increase in haemoglobin mass (red blood cells). This is something we can measure in the EIS labs with the physiologist with a few baseline assessments before we go to altitude and then weekly ones upon return. It is really important whilst we are away at altitude to do our daily monitoring to make sure we are training correctly whilst respecting the environment around us but also that we are maintaining muscle mass whilst our body is working harder at rest. This way the coaches can also get the best out of us the weeks we are there.
Altitude - Marginal Gains: Day 1: The team consisted of two coaches, an S&C coach, physiologist and 5 athletes. We met at Manchester airport. Then flew to Malaga, where rental cars were accessed to transport us to Sierra Nevada. The journey takes approximately 2 hours, however it took slightly longer as we stopped on route for food. On entering Granada signposts directed us to Sierra Nevada. There were road signs intermittently which indicated how far above sea level we were and how it was rising. Psychologically I felt, it should be getting harder to breathe. As we arrived we emptied the cars and had to climb a very little hill about 20 m's, as I got to the top I was out of breath, which is alarming for a fit athlete. Although I was exhausted after a long day of travel I really struggled to sleep that night, I kept waking due my breathing being laboured. Day 2: I had to attend a monitoring session at 7.30. This consisted of a lactate reading, oxygen saturation levels, heart rate, blood pressure and weight. In addition I had to rate how we felt physically on a prescribed scale (1-10). This enabled the coaches to assess any problems that we may be experiencing. This procedure would be a daily occurrence prior to a pool session to ensure that our bodies were adapting appropriately and therefore to taylor the session correctly. Following the testing it was time for breakfast, now some people say you lose your appetite at altitude but it had the reverse effect on me, I was absolutely starving!! After food we went down to the pool for a very light session. The pool was a 6 lane 50 m pool with a glass observation window for underwater analysis. The complex (CAR) is fantastic and has wonderful facilities, on one side of the building is the restaurant and hotel and on the other a football pitch, swimming pool, multiple gyms, athletics track, physiotherapist, and doctors services. You could spend the entire four weeks without ever leaving the building, so when the weather is grim this is quite nice, however this would definitely drive me crazy! Initially our training was not too strenuous as we were advised to ease into physical activity. After the first week we undertook 9 swim sessions a week and 4 gym sessions. We also did a pre-pool session on land for half an hour before every swim session, this involves any rehab work, core stability and mobility exercises. Stretching took place after every session for at least 30 minutes. After all the hard work we had a well deserved rest day, we decided to go to Alhambra palace (Granada), which was incredible with all the history and buildings were spectacular. Prior to leaving Manchester I was really anxious about experiencing cabin fever, but I was more than happy entertaining myself, walking to the local village and my swim colleagues and myself have become addicted to Breaking bad (series)!
We flew back into Manchester on Saturday and immediately travelled to the laboratory for re-testing of our blood levels. The results will be compared to the baseline results taken prior to leaving the UK. Everyone responds differently to altitude and some may experience more of a positive impact than others. It is therefore important to work with our psychologist in case altitude impacts negatively on testing and race performance. After the testing I returned to my flat for an early night before travelling to Sheffield early Sunday morning to race at BUCS (British university championships). - Claire Cashmore