The Altitude Centre: Finding Your Peak

As part of our interview with Jon Fearne and Alan Colville from Mind Over Mountain, our good pal Liam was invited to The Altitude Centre on behalf of NITP for a taster of what the guys will experience when they undertake their epic challenge later this year...

On the menu was a high-intensity interval training (HIIT) session on Wattbikes at a simulated altitude of 2710m. That is not even half the elevation of the summit climb that Jon and Alan will be tackling! That being said, there was still only 15% oxygen inside the chamber compared to 21% at sea level. This 6% difference sounds small, but the effect it has on your body and its ability to perform is significant and profound. With less oxygen available to be carried by your red blood cells’ haemoglobin, it is considerably more difficult to supply your muscles during cardiovascular exercise. Suddenly, a normal workout becomes far more arduous!

So why put yourself through it? The main reason is that training in hypoxic (low oxygen) conditions causes physiological adaptations that lead to improved performance. You may have heard of EPO (erythropoietin) before with respect to cheating in sport? Well, high altitude training naturally increases EPO production by our kidneys and since EPO is responsible for stimulating red blood cell production, this in turn leads to improved oxygen delivery. Returning to sea level with this boost to your red blood cell volume can result in enhanced endurance for up to 2 weeks. This is the motivation behind all altitude training.

I've had some experience of training at altitude previously. Back in 2016, I spent a couple of weeks in the US states of Colorado and Wyoming. I did some trail running whilst there and the difference was immediately noticeable despite it only being at about 1700m. I was arguably the fittest I've ever been in my life having just completed Ironman Switzerland but this counted for nothing at altitude! My body simply lacked the red blood cells to deal with the lower oxygen. I ran 5km the day after I arrived, it required considerably more effort to achieve a similar time to my normal training runs, and I was left gasping for breath. Fortunately, the human body's ability to adapt is incredible. After 2 weeks of acclimatising, my body felt better able to cope and I found running a hilly 10km far easier than the first run. With extra red blood cells coursing through my veins, perhaps I could hope for my performance back in London to be improved – if only temporarily.

Lance Armstrong famously trained at altitude in Colorado, which combined with blood doping and EPO injections, took his oxygen processing and therefore aerobic endurance to godlike levels. For us mere mortals who don’t have the luxury of high altitude training camps, can an altitude chamber really do the job without needing to travel across the globe, living for weeks above 2000m? My unscientific opinion is probably not. They certainly seem useful as a way of experiencing the effects of high altitude on your body, or perhaps condensing a session into a very intense short one. Our session was proof of this. Less than halfway through our pyramid, I was practically in a state of delirium due to exerting myself and struggling to recover between intervals. This effort was not wasted as I ranked third overall on the night for average power, two places behind the man himself – Alan Colville. Clearly, he’d done far more actual altitude training than I had! Research studies suggest that you need to spend at least 12 hours a day at altitude (real or simulated) to see any real performance benefits. This just isn’t feasible at somewhere like The Altitude Centre. Firstly, you’d have to spend a lot of money on sessions and secondly you’d probably go insane from being stuck inside the small chamber with nothing but a Wattbike! I hesitate to use the word gimmick, but for most amateur athletes I think their time and money is probably better spent elsewhere.

That being said, I really enjoyed my evening at The Altitude Centre. As well as a very intense training session that had me begging for mercy, I met some truly inspiring people undertaking a huge challenge and promoting exercise to reduce mental health conditions. I’d like to send a big thank you to Lara Morgan and the Scentered team, Jennifer from ProActive PR, The Altitude Centre for hosting and of course, Alan Colville from Mind Over Mountain. Good luck. I look forward to reading about your new world record in September!

Liam Reilly