An Update On Simulated Altitude Training Using The AltoLab Altitude Simulator October 15 2015

 Altitude training is gaining acceptance

For a number of years now we have been advising athletes we coach to utilize AltoLab to simulate altitude and get improvements in performance. There has been positive feedback from them about the benefits. The first athlete we trialed it with was professional triathlete & world junior duathlon champion Jamie Hunt and it helped take him to 4th place at the world long distance champs, several podiums at world cups and a couple of top 10s at the world championships. That was back in 1996. At the time there was no scientific support for using AltoLab and there was a great debate about altitude training generally. Then we didn’t know what was the best way to do it and we had no one to ask about it so we simply did a lot of educated trial and error. We simply kept an eye on how the athletes felt and went from there.


Since those early days there has been a raft of research done on both simulated altitude and also real altitude, the most notable being that the “live high, train low” real altitude method works. This is where you sleep up a mountain but then travel down to do all or some of your training, certainly any harder training. The obvious issues with this are the costs to do it, unless you live somewhere where you can do it and the shear amount of travel time involved in going up and down each day. There are also a limited number of places in the world where you can do this and even less when you think about the often additional requirement to also train in a hot and/or humid environment (for those competing in hot and/or humid environments).


Recently there has been some solid published research showing that the AltoLab will give performance gains for both endurance athletes and also team sport/field athletes and probably most importantly the gains are BIGGER for less well trained athletes.


AltoLab works! Results highlighted in key findings:

15 days of AltoLab will give endurance athletes around 3-5% gains in performance (more for age group athletes). To give you an idea of how much that’s worth, everything else being equal, a competitive athlete could reasonably expect to get 2-3 min faster in a 40km bike TT or a 1/2 marathon. (Carmen J. Babcock, 2007, PhD Thesis, Ohio State University).


15 days of AltoLab will give team sport athletes up to 7% gains in repeated sprints, the type of thing that you do all game long. (see Running performance after adaptation to acutely intermittent hypoxia, Wood et al, 2006 Euro J Sport Sci 6(3): 163-172)


Since those early days we’ve also had a chance to refine what we advise athletes, thanks to the feedback we’ve had from the numerous athletes who have tried it. That’s included people like Bevan Docherty, the 2004 World Triathlon Champion and Olympic Silver Medalist and Dwight Phillips, World Long Jump Champion.


Biofeedback essential in simulated altitude

It’s been known for some time that people respond differently to any given altitude. That’s a particular issue for team sports if you go to altitude. For some it won’t be high enough, for some it will give them an ideal boost and for a few it will be too high.


Not only that but many athletes need a higher altitude to get further benefits after an initial bout. The impracticality of shifting base every week is obviously a major issue for real altitude. Again that’s where the simulated altitude option comes in and with the use of a blood saturation meter (finger pulse oximeter) you can get instant feedback on the actual level of stress you place on your cardio-vascular oxygen transport system.


So as your body adapts to a given simulated altitude, you can go higher to maintain the desired bloody oxygen levels. However, on days where you might be stressed or tired you can reduce the simulated altitude levels to keep your stress in check. Try doing that with real altitude. It’s not possible.


AltoLab is like other types of personal training

AltoLab is much like other forms of training, when you go for a bike ride, run or do a skills or speed session. These all place stress on your body and require you to assess your recovery and modify to get the best, consistent, beneficial training over the longer term.


So just like other forms of training there are times when it’s better to skip a session and there will be times when it might pay to simply make an AltoLab session easier. It all comes back to monitoring how you are feeling and adjusting your plan as needed. Feedback from athletes has provided guidelines on how to do this:


When planning your first 15 days of AltoLab, don’t start when tired and time it so that days 5-7 fall on easy training days. Simulated altitude may make you feel tired so you don’t combining that with hard training. If you start during your competitive season it’s ideal to start on a week going into a bye or before a match/completion that is of lesser importance. Another ideal time to start if you have an injury and your usual training is going to be reduced for a week or so.


Skip AltoLab on really heavy training days. Typically that’s any really long training session where you totally tap out your carbohydrates, any heavy speed session, competition simulation or an actual event. So for cyclists we recommend skipping a session on the evening after a competition, especially if the event is 2+ hours long.


By monitoring how you are feeling and being smart about which days to add in the training you will get more out of your AltoLab simulated altitude training.


How do you do the first 15 days of AltoLab?

We generally advise athletes to follow the traditional protocol for their first 15 days. That is a program where the saturation targets get progressively lower over the 15 days starting around 90% saturation and ending around 80-83%.


The first time you use AltoLab determine a benchmark for how many black cups (AltoMixers) you need to reach 90% and use that to guide you:


Before starting your first session, you want to do a test called a de-saturation benchmark. It’s a measure of your body’s ability to maintain blood oxygen levels at a set altitude. Blood oxygen levels are related to how much oxygen is in the air you breathe, how much your demand your body has for oxygen and the efficiency of your cardiovascular system to transport it. We want to have some sort of measure of this efficiency. Hence the test standardizes the oxygen you breathe and is done at rest to limit differences in oxygen demand.


Sit quietly for 5 min and let your heart rate settle. Set up the AltoLab so that you have two full AltoMixers attached. Place the oximeter on your finger and record your blood oxygen levels (SpO2%) and resting heart rate (HR).


Set your timer and start breathing through the AltoLab for 6min. Record your SpO2% and HR at the end of the 5th min and also the 6th min. You’ll get a table that looks something like this:

SpO2  HR
Rest 98% 66
5th min 87% 83
6th min 84% 88

Average for 5th &

6th min
87.5% 83.5


Then at the end of your 15 days (or each day if you want to check progress) you can simply repeat. If you are tired prior to doing an AltoLab session, you can test first to see if you should do it. Say for example, you did a long bike ride of 75mi (120km) and were feeling tired and not sure if you should do your AltoLab session, you can do a 6 min test. If your rest SpO2% saturations are LOWER than normal then it’s probably a good day to skip AltoLab and you can continue the 15 day program a day later. Because you’ve done hard training that day your resting oxygen demand will be higher, resulting in higher resting HR and lower SpO2 levels than on a rest day.


To help you, look over the de-saturation benchmark retest outcomes and response table below:

 Outcome of Retest Response (What to Do)
HR and Saturation are about the same as the initial test.

This is normal in the first 4 days. After day 4, this may happen when you are combining hard training and AltoLab.

If you feel tired then consider making the saturation targets 1-2% higher for that session, repeat the test the following day.

HR and Saturation are both 10% higher then the initial test.

If this occurs in the first 4 days consider making the saturation targets a bit higher or delay lowering the daily saturation targets.

 If this occurs after the first 4 days then consider modifying the session, consider making the session easier by aiming for 3-4% higher saturation.

 If this is the night after a heavy training day skip and continue the plan the following day

HR and Saturation are both 10% Lower then the initial test. You are responding well and you are recovering well. Keep with the program.