Today’s athletes are constantly seeking new methods to legally improve their endurance, strength, stamina and cardiovascular conditioning. Over the years high altitude training, and Intermittent Hypoxic Exposure or (IHE), has become one of the most sought after methods to accomplish these goals.
Brief History Of Altitude Training
Adaptation to high altitude was first acknowledged by balloonists and alpinists in the early 1800’s who first discovered the physical limits of going above 13,000 ft. The so-called “death zone,” the altitude above which humans were not supposed to survive, was thought to be about 15,000 ft. No one could explain why high elevations were toxic. As balloonists, or “aeronauts”, got more daring and were able to rise above 22,000 ft, their constant attempts to break new altitude records often led to fatal consequences. It wasn’t until new test equipment and small animals were brought along for the aeronauts to examine in flight that the key to survival at high altitudes was discovered. It was oxygen. Oxygen was not discovered until 1774 as the “active” gas component of air. Those balloonists found that as they flew higher, the oxygen content in the air dropped, to a level that could kill a mouse and even a man.
Eventually a high altitude simulator for human testing was built at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1877. This machine was a giant, double-cylinder vacuum chamber large enough for a man in fit in (Fig 1). Scientists were able to create a vacuum equal to 20,000 ft of altitude. A man inside the chamber was then able to survive by bringing along a rubber bag containing pure oxygen that he could breathe from.
Later, it was observed that people who lived at 12,000 ft. were able to endure much higher altitudes and did not suffer from altitude sickness compared with people from sea level. This adaptation was noticed by Sir Edmund Hillary who used native Sherpa guides to help him reach the summit of Mt Everest. Hillary marveled at the exceptional endurance and stamina of these people. If you look at the faces of Sherpa children next to a lowlander you can see a noticeable difference in their appearance (Fig 2).
Notice the dark red cheeks of those kids! This is an adaptation to living at 15,000 ft. and is caused by an increase in capillary blood vessels to their skin and an increase in myoglobin, the red pigment of muscles. Myoglobin is responsible for storing oxygen in muscle cells. As myglobin increases it leads to a dark red color in muscles and enhances their oxygen storage capacity. High myoglobin is why whales can hold their breath underwater for hours at a time and how some birds can fly for days at 30,000 ft. without stopping. High myglobin and high capillaries help circulate and retain oxygen and keep those cheeks warm. AltoLab and (IHE) training can create similar overall changes in muscles that lead to improved well being.