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Altitude training gaining popularity, but less is more, expert says

Some gyms are dedicating rooms that replicate altitudes of up to 15,000 feet above sea level. | Stock.Adobe.com

Some gyms are dedicating rooms that replicate altitudes of up to 15,000 feet above sea level. | Stock.Adobe.com

Getting in shape is top on the list for many after ringing in the New Year. And some athletes who are trying to get that competitive edge are upping their game with altitude training.

“For a long time, there wasn’t any research available on the benefits of altitude training but that’s changing,” said Sharone Aharon, owner and coach of Well-fit in the West Loop.

Aharon transformed one of his regular workout rooms last year to replicate altitudes of up to 15,000 feet above sea level, bringing the first commercial altitude training facility to the Midwest.

“Olympic athletes do this out in Colorado Springs at their training center, and I found out Australia has 16 altitude training rooms available commercially, while we only had five in the entire United States, so I wanted to take things up a notch,” said Aharon.

“In four weeks, we had a guy who ran a five-minute mile which is really fast, and he improved by 8 seconds. One woman did a 12-minute test and she improved by 44 seconds. If you took that to the track, she almost did a whole lap faster in four weeks of training.”

Sharone Aharon, owner and coach of Well-fit in the West Loop. | Jenniffer Weigel for the Sun-Times

But even the most seasoned athlete should use caution when exerting themselves in high altitudes, said Dr. Adam Miller, medical director for ARISE MD in Milwaukee.

“I think we need to be a little bit careful with training at altitude because of the consequences of high altitude sickness,” said Miller. “Altitude sickness can cause fluid to build in the lungs and cerebral edema or swelling in the brain, which is very dangerous.”

Jenniffer Weigel | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Jenniffer Weigel | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Miller, who is a competitive climber, experienced altitude sickness at 13,000 feet while climbing Mount Whitney in California in 2012.

“I was with a few buddies, and we’ve all done triathlons so we are in great shape, but I started getting a pounding headache and an attorney from Chicago walked over and took me down the mountain because he said, ‘I’ve watched you for the last five minutes swatting at an imaginary bird.’ I was hallucinating,” Miller said. “That same day there was an 18-year-old champion who got airlifted off Mt. Whitney for cerebral edema. It could happen to anybody, no matter how fit you are.”

So what are the advantages to training at sea levels of 10,000 feet and above?

“The body is going to do whatever it can to adapt to the one molecule it needs the most which is oxygen,” Miller said. “In a low oxygen setting the body is going to start telling the bone marrow to start kicking out more red blood cells so that you have more hemoglobin to carry more oxygen. When you go from a high oxygen environment to a low oxygen environment, the body is forced to adapt and generally that causes some good things to happen if it’s done appropriately.”

Aharon agrees and has created programs specifically for marathon runners, bikers and climbers.

As with any workout regime, Miller said it’s important to get a doctor’s approval before getting started.

“We live in an era of inflammation and anxiety, so if you’re already depleted and stressed, you don’t want to put that kind of stress on your physical body,” Miller said. “Know where you’re at in terms of total body inflammation, cardiovascular fitness, sleep quality, and anxiety. The good news is in those training rooms, you’re in and out, so you’re not stuck at 9,000 feet. The forced adaptation is transient versus being on the side of the mountain, which is really nice.”

And unlike most workouts, less is more with altitude training.

“The U.S. Olympic training team has a motto — live high, train low,” Miller said. “Basically anything that will get people moving, I’m for it. If you want to integrate this into your training, maybe instead of running five miles, you should go in and walk with light weights in your hand and see how you feel. Go low and go slow.”

Aharon said his gym keeps altitude workouts very short — “25 minutes to an hour, tops.”

“Usually the treadmill workouts are about 40 minutes with rest and recovery between intervals,” he said. “And the climbers will bring their gear and just walk the treadmill. On Sundays, that’s when I raise the altitude to 14,000 feet for the climbers and they’ll all be in here with backpacks. It’s hilarious.”

Jenniffer Weigel is the director of community relations for the Sun-Times and has a lifelong interest in wellness and related topics. She’s a frequent contributor to the Wednesday Well section.