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Could Altitude Training Rooms Be the Key to Your Next PR?

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Photo: Well-Fit Performance

If you've ever traveled into the mountains and got winded going up the stairs or could only run a fraction of your usual distance before having to stop and catch your breath, you know the effects of altitude are real. (This runner found out the hard way during her first trail race.)

The experience might be no fun if you're trying to perform. But if you've been in a rut with your workouts lately—maybe your mile pace isn't getting any faster, or your one rep max isn't getting any heavier—incorporating altitude training into your weekly routine might actually be worth a try. (P.S. Here's what it's like to wear an altitude training mask—and whether it's actually worth it.)

Maya Solis, a working mom who's done half Ironman races, started training at Well-Fit Performance, an endurance sports training facility in Chicago that has one of the few altitude rooms in the United States. The oxygen level in the room is set to what it would be at an altitude of 10,000 feet (about 14 percent, compared to about 21 percent at sea-level), says Sharone Aharon, the owner and founder of Well-Fit Performance, who's trained members of the USA Triathlon national program. Here's how it works: Using Hypoxico technology, a large compressor pushes air through a filtration system that pulls oxygen out. The room isn't completely sealed, so the barometric pressure inside and outside the room is the same; the only variable is the oxygen level. The altitude can be controlled from 0 to 20,000 feet, though most days he keeps it at 10,000, and one day a week increases it to 14,000, says Aharon.

With limited time to hit the gym, Solis said she liked the fact that the workout was less than an hour. "I started using the altitude room to work on speed workouts in a more efficient way," says Solis. Postpartum, she was doing 5K runs at a 9-minute-mile pace, and "hadn't been in the 8s for a very long time," she says. After she started doing altitude training, she ran a 5K and hit a PR of an 8:30-mile pace. (Related: 5 Reasons You're Not Running Any Faster)

Her results are quite typical, says Aharon. He says he brought the altitude room to the facility because he "wanted to throw a game-changer into the market."

"You always look for ways to improve people's ability, to gain more, to have an advantage," says Aharon. "At the beginning, I was thinking about the performance athlete, but then I realized there's an enormous amount of benefit for 'everyday heroes'—people who just want to get better."

One of those everyday heroes was Solis, whose altitude workout looks like this: A 10-minute warm-up on a bike or treadmill, followed by interval training—four minutes hard, four minutes recovery, repeat—twice a week for six weeks. The entire session lasts about 45 minutes, but it feels harder than the same workout might feel outside (at Chicago's elevation of 500 feet) or in any other gym.

It makes sense that people trying to summit Everest or planning to spend a week hiking in Colorado would want to try altitude training to prepare. But for the average fit person, doing strength training in an altitude room can provide greater benefits than doing the same workout at sea level, says Aharon. Basically: You're going to get a little more edge for every workout you do, and you don't have to train as long as you would normally to see the same results. It boils down to training efficiency. (Here are other ways you can train to exercise at high altitude.)

"Your system has to work against less oxygen and then adapt," he explains. "Every time you put a stress on the body, within physiological limits, the body will adapt." (The same stress-response logic is behind heat training and sauna suits.)

Studies showing performance increases due to altitude training have mostly been done with pro athletes in extreme conditions—so they don't exactly translate IRL. Most experts say that, for the average person training in these conditions a few days a week, the effects are minimal to nonexistent. Yet plenty of success stories (such as Solis') seem to show otherwise, so we need more research to say for sure.

It turns out, there may be a placebo effect at work. Ben Levine, M.D., founder and director of the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas, is a nonbeliever in the benefits of simulated altitude training.

"If you don't spend at least 12 to 16 hours a day in altitude, altitude tends to have zero benefits," says Dr. Levine. "For the recreational, everyday athlete, there's no biological effect above the noise of optimal training." Here's why: When you're working out in a reduced-oxygen environment (known as hypoxic training), there's less oxygen in your blood as well. Your blood vessels dilate and your cardiovascular system has to work harder to get blood and oxygen into the working muscles, according to Dr. Levine. So even though exercise at altitude feels harder (whether it's simulated in a room or actually in a place at altitude), you're actually doing less work; your body isn't able to perform at the same caliber that you can perform at sea level due to the reduced oxygen. That's why Dr. Levine argues that training for short periods of time at altitude isn't going to score you any more benefits that training optimally at sea level.

The only caveat to that, he says, is recent data from Switzerland reporting that altitude training may lead to a slight improvement in speed when used in high-intensity training for athletes like soccer players who are doing frequent repetitive sprints. (It's worth noting that HIIT training has tons of benefits on its own—even at sea level.)

However, if you work out at altitude then go back to sea-level exercise, it's going to feel a lot easier when you're working out—which could arguably give you a mental "I can do this" boost. As such, "a lot of people come back down from altitude and say, 'This feels fantastic,' but they also tend to have not run very fast," says Dr. Levine. That's why he discourages people from spending lots of money and time on simulated altitude training (for reference, an altitude membership to Well-Fit Performance is $230 per month).

That said, "if you think doing hills is a good thing to bring into your routine and you can go do that in the mountains, that's great," says Dr. Levine. "But I don't think you should fool yourself into thinking it's a miracle treatment."

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