Why loitering within tent may be good for your game
Duncan Mackay examines how the use of hypoxic tents can influence athletic performance.
When Mark Steinle crossed the line in 2001's London Marathon as first-placed Briton in sixth place, he believed his triumph owed a lot to a new and unique method he had employed to boost his stamina and speed. Steinle was convinced he was taking steps to make himself a better runner every time he went to sleep at night. He had installed a hypoxic tent in his bedroom at his parent's home in Tonbridge, which he believed gave him all the advantage of living at high altitude while actually based at sea level. Australian athletes had the use of three such tents at the Australian Institute of Sport for nearly two years before the Olympic Games in Sydney.
Among them was Michelle Jones, winner of the silver medal in the first-ever Olympic Triathlon. The hypoxic tent system, which is manufactured by an American firm run by the former British Olympic cyclist Shaun Wallace, costs £4,000. Despite this hefty price tag, it is becoming increasingly popular with endurance athletes looking for a legal way to increase their red blood cell count in the hope that this will make them run faster. Demand for the tents is reported to have surged since the introduction, at last year's Olympics, of a test, which could detect the banned hormone erythropoietin (EPO).
Among others who use hypoxic tents regularly are Britain's world cross-country champion Paula Radcliffe, England's former world triathlon champion Simon Lessing, Australia's Ironman triathlon champion Greg Welch, New Zealand's Commonwealth cycling gold medallist Lee Vertongen and America's Olympic swimming silver medallist and world record holder Ed Moses. "Runners have a saying, sleep high, train hard - and that's what I do," says Suzy Favor Hamilton, America's top-ranked 1,500m runner, who also uses the tent.
Sleeping at altitude
The oxygen content within these vinyl cells has been reduced to about 15% (normal sea level is around 21 percent). The result is an artificial atmosphere that makes your lungs feel as if they're on top of a 9,00Oft mountain. Steinle does not even have to pay the airfare to Nairobi! "l am poor so I cannot afford to go away twice a year," he says. "This is a great invention". A suitcase-sized filter skims a pre-set amount of oxygen from the air outside the chamber, then pumps the thinned-out vapour into the bubble. Soon your red blood cell count starts to jump, and it is claimed the capillaries in your lungs and muscles expand to deliver V02 more efficiently. Steinle believes he gains the benefits of altitude, helping to put him on a level playing field with the African-born runners who dominate the distance events. The company claims the tent can actually offer more benefits than training at altitude.
Travelling to altitude locations for training, particularly for athletes who live at sea level, creates increased stress on the body, forcing a reduction in training volume and intensity. This leads to a detraining effect, which can negate the positive physiological adaptations that come from being at altitude. Unlike the constant hypoxia present in the mountains, says the company, the intermittent hypoxia of the tent leads to a gradual adaptation, which enables the body to perform better not only at altitude environment but also at sea level.
"The tent gives athletes the best of both worlds: the physiological improvements of being at altitude, with no loss of quality of performance during training as well as faster recovery from intensive training," explains Sheffield's Jon Brown, who finished fourth in the Olympic marathon last year. Research on athletes who use the chambers has shown an increase in the presence of the red blood cell-boosting hormone EPO, but there is conflicting data on whether this offers any performance-enhancing benefits. "There's no definitive evidence that altitude training works, although there is lots of anecdotal evidence. I have measured lots of athletes who have enjoyed improvements in their haemoglobin levels after altitude training, but they could have got the same benefits from warm weather training and working harder over a period of time. "The hypoxic tent can simulate living at altitude, so you get the benefits, but can train in your normal environment at sea-level. It's probably the best compromise." It is all very different from the situation 20 years ago when British distance runner Tim Hutchings would spend weeks abroad at altitude to prepare for major events. The only tent he used was the one he lived in the Rift Valley. I actually believe that, as with all training trips, half the benefit of being at altitude is psychological, resulting from being away from the stresses and routines of home.
The additional stimulation of a beautiful environment such as, say, St.Moritz, has to be good for one's mental state. So as far as I am concerned, the physiology is only half the issue. Competitors were forbidden from taking oxygen tents into the Olympic village in Sydney on the grounds of health and safety. But the suspicion lingers that some officials believe their use is unethical. "It's another example of the rich countries taking science to its maximum limits to try and gain an advantage," said one senior International Olympic Committee member. Even some top athletes believe the tents offer an unfair advantage to those who can afford one. "They create a training environment and conditions that are virtually non-existent in the real world," said Brown. "That is a training location that enables athletes to sleep and live at altitude, but then drop immediately to sea level for training. "Such places do exist, but the practicalities involved in driving one hour down a mountain every time you want to leave the house make them unattractive." Steinle is certainly a great advert for the product. Since buying it after returning home from a training trip to South Africa he has become one of Britain's leading runners. So, for him, it will be a case of "carry on camping".
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