10:09am Tuesday 18 February 2020

Decreasing oxygen to increase performance

Just as he did for Olympic cyclist Linda Villumsen (who finished 2nd in the time trial and 6th in the road race at the 2013 UCI Road World Championships in Florence, Italy) Mike is facilitating altitude training for Christchurch-based cyclist Paul Odlin to better prepare him for the Elite Road National Championships in January.
Paul, who is the current New Zealand Elite time trial and Oceania road race champion, will be competing in the 40km time trial event at the Championships. The time trial starts and finishes at Lincoln, travelling via Springston and Leeston.
Over the next month Mike will be subjecting Paul to hypoxic training through Lincoln University’s Exercise Science Lab. Hypoxic training is a form of altitude training that involves supplying oxygen depleted air to the athlete via a mask connected to a machine known as a hypoxicator. Each training session for Paul entails around 90 minutes on the bike connected to the machine.
On average, the air we breathe contains around 21% oxygen. Paul started his training with air containing just 16% oxygen, which equates to exercising at an altitude of around 2100-2500 metres. Over time, as Paul’s body becomes acclimatised to the change, the oxygen levels will be lowered further. According to Mike, by the end of the training programme, this may be lowered to 12-13%, which is comparable to an altitude of around 4000 meters.
Several changes take place in the athlete’s body as a response to the lower oxygen levels. Initially, with the red blood cells now carrying less oxygen, the heart will beat faster than normal in an attempt to supply enough oxygen throughout the body. Ultimately, however, as it struggles to manage this, a metabolic process begins whereby the low oxygen levels in the blood stimulate an increase in the production of erythropoietin (EPO) – a hormone produced in the kidneys that controls red blood cell production. The increased level of EPO ‘instructs’ the red marrow in the body’s larger bones to begin producing more red cells.
Over time, many other adaptations occur, including the development of a greater number of capillaries and more effective oxygen processing within the muscle cells, thereby ensuring each muscle becomes more efficient and able to work at a higher overall level.
Mike will be measuring Paul’s progress throughout his hypoxic training by monitoring blood saturation levels (the percentage of oxygen in the red blood cells), and through subjective training responses and adaptations which can indicate the rate of Paul’s improvement.
As the only centre in the South Island offering altitude training facilities, Lincoln University’s Exercise Science Lab has seen a number of sportspeople and teams through its doors over the years.
“We’ve been involved with altitude training for around 15 years now and worked with athletes from a range of codes,” says Mike. “A lot of the work we do in this area is purely for research purposes. However, we are always open to providing a service to sportspeople who may be looking for ways to increase performance.”

Lincoln University



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