A Preternatural High

Train at high altitude—in the privacy of your home—for a boost in athletic endurance...

Train at high altitude—in the privacy of your home—for a boost in athletic endurance.

In the Planica valley of northwestern Slovenia, an area known for world-class ski jumping, there is an Olympic training center in which an entire floor simulates altitudes as high as the base camp at Mount Everest. On this floor, athletes can train or play basketball on a full court or sleep in a high-altitude environment known to alter the body’s metabolism. Here researchers conduct experiments on the physiological benefits of training and sleeping in a low-oxygen (or hypoxic) setting. These include the increased production of red blood cells, more efficient breathing during strenuous workouts, higher fat metabolism, and a delay in lactic acid buildup—some athletes also report weight loss. Research even suggests that experiencing a low-oxygen environment might benefit diabetics, those with asthma or COPD, and those trying to boost their metabolism. Pro athletes including Michael Phelps and LeBron James insist that sleeping or training at simulated high altitude has made a difference in their athletic performance.

The facility in Slovenia is one of dozens built by b-Cat High Altitude, a Netherlands-based company that specializes in building rooms that can simulate a high-altitude environment for athletes, often at elite training centers. “In Germany we build a lot of recovery clinics to help athletes recover from an injury or illness. Trainers there believe very strongly that sleeping at altitude will increase the body’s ability to bounce back from injury,” says Edwin Willemsen, co-owner and director of b-Cat. But the company also builds these rooms in homes, because recreational athletes are discovering the benefits of high-altitude acclimatization. 

“Specifically, these athletes are trying to increase red blood cell production,” says Krista Austin, a Colorado Springs, Colo.–based physiologist who specializes in altitude training for Olympic athletes and intermittent hypoxia training, which works, she says, if you do it correctly—which means spending enough time in the high-altitude room. “We know you need to be in the room for more than 12 hours a day to do that,” says Austin. Being in a tent or thin-air environment causes the body to generate erythropoietin, a hormone that spurs the production of red blood cells. This hypoxic setting also stimulates the body’s metabolism, or as Austin puts it, “It unclogs the pipes.” Even if people spend just a few hours in the tent, the low-oxygen environment can improve their breathing rate, and this also improves their endurance and their perception of their endurance level. They labor less during competition, which offers an advantage. 

So, how does b-Cat High Altitude create this milieu inside a home? “We reduce the oxygen concentration in the room by using a filter that takes out oxygen, and we do it in a controlled manner,” says Willemsen. They seal off a master bedroom or home gym and then equip it with a control system that constantly monitors the oxygen content and carbon dioxide concentrations in the room. Willemsen says that most people acclimate gradually to altitude sleeping, starting at 6,000 feet initially, before going any higher. “Every individual reacts differently to this environment,” he says, which is why the company recommends medical support at the outset, so clients do not push their bodies too hard.

Austin agrees, saying that her clients often use high-altitude sleeping or training rooms at home to maximize weight loss and to boost their fitness levels, even if they are not competing. While her clients may have an exercise bike in their high-altitude room, she supervises these workouts so that they are working at only 60 or 70 percent of their aerobic reserves. “They are so busy, they only have 30 minutes in the morning. And they tell me they need to reap real cardiovascular benefits. Training at altitude is one way to accelerate this. It’s not a magic pill. You have to make lifestyle changes, too, but it can really give you greater benefits quickly.”