We sent guinea pig Dave Mycroft to try out a revolutionary altitude acclimatisation simulation programme in Manchester - the results could be a major boost for anyone planning a trip to high altitude.
We sent OM routes editor Dave Mycroft to high altitude, in, erm
Manchester. He spent almost a month undergoing an intensive training
course imported from New Zealand which is claimed to simulate the
training effects of going to altitude by simply breathing
oxygen-depleted air for five minutes at a time.
The process, developed by New Zealand company IO -
- is used by numerous professional sportsmen and women, but we were
more interested in its potential benefits for climbers and trekkers -
pre-acclimatisation for a Himalayan peak or trek anyone? Could you save vital acclimatisation time by getting it done in advance?
Does it work? Dave takes up the story....
Three weeks of driving round the M60 every day didn't exactly fill
me with joy on cold February days, but the idea of acclimatising in
the comfort of a leather chair while watching TV was intriguing. The
inspiration had come from a forum posting in which someone mentioned that a new idea
from New Zealand had made an appearance in Manchester of all
Essentially the three-week treatment involved sitting down
watching TV for an hour a day. For five minutes you'd be breathing
reduced oxygen content air, with five minutes break at normal air
before the next round started. Silly old Dave chose to wear his
mountaineering kit too, though it's not strictly necessary ;-)
The science behind it dates back to the space race age, when the
Russians tried it for fighter pilots. The idea is that the body
slowly gets used to operating with reduced oxygen content, but
without the other undesirable side effects of altitude. Over the
three week period the oxygen content is reduced from 12% to 9%,
compared to a normal sea level content of over 20%
Straight To 4500 metres...
The first week we started straight in at the equivalent of 4500m,
and for the first couple of days it was tough. After a few breaths
the mask had to come off as I needed to gulp in big breaths of real
air. Slowly the gaps between mask-off stops became bigger and the
number of gulps needed became smaller, but the tell tale headaches
started. Anyone with altitude experience will tell you about the
headaches, and they're a sure fire signal of hypoxia.
From day one some of the normal effects of being at altitude
became apparent, with a headache starting within two or three of the
five minute sessions. Breathing was difficult at first, and harder
when trying to carry out even a simple process such as reading a
Throughout the training, blood saturation levels are measured
using the oxymeter, below.
By the end of week one the feeling was, subjectively, close to
that of having spent two or three days in the Alps around the 4000m
mark. There was little noticeable improvement in a maximum duration
cycle test at full setting, and little feeling of increased energy or
endurance levels. Day 3 had seen us "climb" to 5200m, with the first
1% oxygen reduction, but by now the body was adjusting to the point
where it felt no different from how a simulated 4500m had.
Then On To The Summit of Kili'
The second week saw an immediate drop to 10% saturation levels,
which is like being on top of Kilimanjaro at 5800m. After the first
day at this level I could leave the mask on full time and the
headaches of week one were gone with just a faint tingling sensation
around the temple and eyes. By this stage I was feeling physically
better and this showed up with increased duration on the maximum
duration cycle test.
The third week saw the levels drop again, this time to 9% or
6600m. This was a common trouble spot, where some of the professional
rugby and football player clients had struggled. For some reason the
drop didn't seem even noticeable, but the improvements were really
starting to show.
The headaches were gone and I felt full of energy - enough even to
face the drive round the M60 each day. Subjectively it felt very
similar to being high on Aconcagua whilst wearing the mask, but once
removed it was similar to having returned to sea level after a long
period at altitude. Breathing seemed easier, exercise less
exhausting, and there appeared to be a general feeling of well being.
By the end of the week there were remarkable improvements in the
maximum duration cycle test.
Of course subjective results are just opinion and notoriously
fallible, so we carried out some standard tests throughout the
treatment to see if the benefits were genuine. The results showed
lower heart rate, faster recovery times and increased endurance, no
wonder the Australian Olympic Triathalon team use this for
As you can see from the table above, over the three weeks, Dave's
results in a maximum duration cycling test showed drastic
improvements with a doubling in mileage achieved after the full
course, a decrease in maximum pulse rate during the test from 168 bpm
to 144 bpm and a significantly improved recovery time.
What Does It Mean For You?
For trekkers and mountaineers, the important tests are how much
oxygen the lungs can hold and how quickly you tire. Tests of maximum
aerobic power, V02max and lactate levels were done in cooperation
Both maximum aerobic power and V02 max are useful indications of
the body's ability to take in, transport and process oxygen. The
higher these figures are the better you can cope with the oxygen
reduction experienced at altitude.
What also helps massively is the 22% increase in the hemocratic
and haemoglobin levels, meaning more oxygen carrying cells are
produced from the bone marrow. High lactate levels are an indication
of the likelihood of getting cramp through exhaustion.
The table below shows improvements in all three areas.
Does It Work?
The bottom line is, did it make any difference? And the answer is
a resounding yes. Both subjectively and objectively it gave a
significant boost to performance at sea level. And feedback from
previous users suggests that the training seems to increase the
chances of summiting on a trekking peak like Kilimanjaro.
It takes about a week after final training for the full effects to
kick in properly, but timed right it could be a useful way of fitting
a long trek into a shorter time or just enjoying more of the
experience of being at altitude. Bear in mind too, that you can go
back for a top-up session some weeks later to keep your
acclimatisation at optimum levels. The ice axe is optional...
Alternatively, for competitive endurance athletes, a full session
at IO could give you the sort of edge over your competitors that
you'd otherwise have to train at altitude to acquire.
So is there a down side? At £350 for a full three-week course
involving a daily one-hour session, it's certainly not cheap, then
again, neither is a trek or climb at altitude and improving your
chances of summiting or simply not suffering from altitude sickness
may be worth a lot more to your personally.
Secondly, at the moment you need to live within easy range of IO's
UK centre in Manchester - you're going to be going there once a day
for three weeks - however there are plans for portable units to be
introduced which may make that less crucial if you can afford the
For more information see www.io-nz.com
call Total Fitness on 161 351 2440 or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org