Residing at the right height
by Nicolette Mok
The Singapore Sports Institute (SSI) boasts a live-in altitude house, which caters to prolonged exposure at flexible altitudes, and can house up to 16 people in its four bedrooms. Photo: SportSG
You’ve probably heard of world-class distance runners holing themselves up in mountains, living and training in thin, oxygen-deprived air.
Closer to home, where the highest point on the island hardly reaches 200 metres, such altitude training has also gained ground among our sporting elite. Boasting a live-in altitude house and a team of sports scientists, the Singapore Sports Institute (SSI) has ensured that local athletes do not miss out on this possibility to get stronger.
SSI’s Head and Senior Sports Physiologist Dr Frankie Tan, who is currently overseeing the national kayaking’s team three-week stay at this brand new altitude house, took time to shed light on the fundamentals of the altitude training programme.
“Typically, altitude training is more suited to endurance athletes. You can time your altitude exposure to a major competition, or to prepare for a big bulk of training,” he explained, adding that the effects of altitude training would fade within two to three weeks of returning to sea level.
Dr Frankie Tan, Singapore Sports Institute's Head and Senior Sports Physiologist, says altitude training is more suited for endurance athletes, and can be timed as part of athletes' preparations to major competitions. Photo: SportSG
“Two to three times a year is advisable if you can cope with it, especially since we have a venue just in our backyard!”
SSI’s altitude house is one that caters to prolonged exposure at flexible altitudes, and can house up to 16 people in its four bedrooms.
Providing insight into his training philosophy, Frankie said: “The ideal case is to live at high altitudes and train ‘low’ – maybe not at sea level, but at around 1000 metres. Our definition of living ‘high’ is usually between 2500 to 3000 metres.”
With the SSI’s gym facilities positioned just outside the living area, athletes are provided with the flexibility to train at lower altitudes, thus not compromising on the intensity of their workouts.
In fact, as long as they put in the prescribed 10 to 12 hours of exposure to hypoxia, they are also free to leave the altitude house, be it for outdoor training sessions, school, or for a movie or two.
Team Singapore athletes have the flexibility to train in similar conditions with the gym stationed just outside the living area of the altitude house. Photo: SportSG
The science behind the altitude house is straightforward: compressors that contain membranes filter oxygen out of the air. Each room may be adjusted independently, but oxygen levels typically account for 15.6% of the air inside, as compared to the 20.9% commonly found at sea level.
However, as Frankie noted, the house does not simulate an “extreme environment” designed to cause discomfort. Conversely, no negative effects are felt at such altitudes, and the kayakers – the first team to use the house – have not complained of discomfort.
The effects occur, for the most part, within the body itself. When exposed to hypoxia, or low oxygen content in the environment, a person’s kidneys will experience an increase in erythropoietin production, stimulating the bone marrow to produce red blood cells, which contain haemoglobin.
“One of the primary adaptations that we hope to see is an increase in haemoglobin mass, which is the protein that carries oxygen in your blood. If you have a higher haemoglobin mass, your ability to carry oxygen will be better. If you can carry more oxygen to your muscles, your muscles will be able to do more work,” he shared, explaining how an increased oxygen capacity will in turn lead to improved levels of speed, strength and stamina.
One of the primary adaptations that exposure to altitude develops is an increase in haemoglobin mass, which is the protein that carries oxygen in your blood. If you have a higher haemoglobin mass, your ability to carry oxygen will be better, a key component of optimal sports performance. Photo: SportSG
“The ideal mass varies between 600 to 1000 grams, depending on the person’s size and how aerobically trained he or she is. Physiologically, the higher the value would mean that one is stronger aerobically.”
Apart from the kayakers, who will leave for the Asian Canoeing Championships immediately after their stint in the altitude house, national cyclist Dinah Chan is also in talks to use it in December. Six German swimmers are, too, pencilled in for 2016.
Meanwhile, the SSI is also preparing to unveil its next facility: an environmental chamber. With environmental parameters controlled by these sports science experts, the athletes can look forward to training not just at high altitudes, but also while exposed to a range of different weather conditions.
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