Calgary lab examines the benefits of hypoxic training for top-level amateur cyclists
The pros have been extolling the benefits of altitude training for years; every major team in the world heads for higher ground i n advance of a Grand Tour. Why? Well, they’re seeking two physiological changes from sleeping or training in an environment with less oxygen: a short-term increase in red blood cells, thanks to the stimulation of natural erythropoietin (epo), and muscle tissue adaption .
Now an increasing number of amateur cyclists are also hoping to benefit from hypoxic training, either through altitude training camps in mountainous regions such as Colorado or Mexico, at-home options that include altitude sleeping tents or at specialized facilities like Canada’s first altitude lab, part of tcr Sport Lab, which opened recently in Calgary.
As the race season warmed up, cyclists of all levels were using the new facility, which includes stationary bikes, treadmills and rowing machines, to boost power, burn off excess fat and i ncrease endurance.
To prove the benefits, Cory Fagan – owner at tcr Sport Lab, physiologist and sports coach – teamed up with the University of Calgary’s kinesiology department to run a pilot study in his new facility. Ten local top-level amateur cyclists underwent a two- or four-week intervention of eight altitude sessions. Before and after the intervention, subjects performed an incremental test to exhaustion to determine anaerobic threshold and VO2 max. They also underwent a time-to-exhaustion trial at maximum anaerobic power (map) to determine power sustainability. The results showed minimal changes to VO2 max and marginal changes to maximal aerobic power with the exception of two subjects who did demonstrate a 25 watt increase in maximum power output.
The greatest area of improvement recorded was anaerobic threshold, which was measured as a percentage of map. Seven of the subjects showed an improved anaerobic threshold relative to map while the other three showed an absolute improvement in threshold power output.
Fagan says these findings are consistent with altitude training. “The process generates changes to muscle tissue, including increased capillarization and improved mitochondrial content resulting in a greater ability to maintain sub-maximum power outputs while leaving VO2 max potentially unchanged,” he says.
Cyclists’ time to exhaustion also showed positive changes with six subjects demonstrating increased time to exhaustion while two others demonstrated an increased power output resulting in a decreased time to exhaustion but an overall increase in power. “It’s consistent with altitude training where maximal power is often not increased but a cyclist’s ability to maintain that output is improved. Cyclists’ average times to exhaustion in this study were increased by 15 seconds over a three-minute test. Eight per cent is a significant increase in endurance,” Fagan says.
Participants’ blood data was less conclusive with some cyclists showing substantial adaptations in levels of hemoglobin and hematocrit while others showed minimal changes. “Some people simply respond better to hypoxic training than others in terms of blood changes. A lot of these changes depend on their starting point prior to altitude,” Fagan notes.
The team at tcr Sport Lab is currently working on another study regarding the fat-burning and weight-loss benefits of activity in a hypoxic atmosphere. So far, their findings show conclusively that more calories are burned at altitude, even when walking.
The preliminary data for the new facility is encouraging for local cyclists looking to gain an edge in their race seasons. Hypoxic training combined with a structured plan can reap substantial benefits. And, regardless of whether or not the evidence is conclusive, the placebo effect of altitude training has long been extolled by experts. When you believe you are stronger, you are stronger.
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Altitude lab at tcr Sport Lab