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Extreme Training

Some Olympic triathletes live at high altitude--or sleep in special tents that mimic it--to increase the body's oxygen-carrying capacity. Critics say it's an unfair advantage.

September 14, 2000|KENDALL S. POWELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Driven" is a term frequently used to describe Olympic athletes. It fits Ryan Bolton, a member of the U.S. men's triathlon team, in more ways than one.

Bolton has driven more than 1,500 miles since mid-July in pursuit of his Olympic goals. That's about 30 trips up and down Pikes Peak Highway--and 125 miles in elevation--between his tent at 11,000 feet and the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.

Why the commute? Bolton spends 60% of his nights at altitude in preparation for triathlon's debut at the Games in Sydney, Australia. Altitude training, a means of increasing the body's oxygen-carrying capacity, is one way triathletes use science to improve their performance.

Their event consists of a 1.5-kilometer swim, a 40-kilometer bike ride and a 10-kilometer run. These Olympic triathlon distances fall between "Ironman" and "sprint" triathlon distances.

The U.S. team members carefully plan training to keep their bodies in top shape for the exhausting challenge of the event, and several incorporate altitude training.

The concept of altitude training has been around for a decade, but new technologies have allowed athletes to more conveniently use altitude or simulated altitude to try to gain an advantage over their competition. In preparation for the first-ever Olympic triathlon competition--beginning this week in Sydney--many of the U.S. team members have been using the facilities in Colorado Springs. Other endurance athletes such as cyclists, race walkers and distance runners also train at altitude.

The method requires athletes to live and sleep at high altitude and train at or near sea level. The training can improve endurance and maximize oxygen uptake.

"The traditional model of altitude training has been one where athletes simultaneously live and train at moderate altitude. This more current approach is the 'live high-train low' paradigm," said Randy Wilber, a U.S. Olympic team sports physiologist in Colorado Springs.

How it works: At higher altitudes, less oxygen is available, which causes the body to produce more red blood cells to carry more oxygen to organs and tissues.

Then, when an athlete competes at or near sea level, where there is more oxygen, the body is thought to operate at a more efficient level, enabling better performance. Even with an increased capacity for carrying oxygen, though, athletes will still be limited by the lower amount of oxygen in the atmosphere when training at altitude, so many also undergo high-intensity training in an oxygen-rich sea-level environment.

Wilber and his colleagues at the U.S. Olympic Committee's division of sport science and technology have tested the use of supplemental oxygen to simulate sea-level conditions for athletes training at about 6,500 feet. Athletes get the best of both worlds, having a greater capacity to carry oxygen from living at high altitude and training with extra oxygen to simulate race conditions.

For high-intensity workouts, an athlete wears an oxygen mask while on a treadmill or stationary bike. In one study, altitude-trained cyclists had greater average power during workouts than athletes who were not given oxygen, and their speed increased dramatically.

Michelle Blessing, head coach for the U.S. Olympic triathlon team, uses supplemental oxygen in her coaching of Nick Radkewich. "Nick has made huge gains in his economy, his speed is better, and he's running faster with less effort. At these guys' level, when you're trying to eke out that last little bit, it really counts."

Athletes who live and train at sea level can simulate altitude while they sleep. Specially designed tents fit around a bed or an entire room. The tents, which cost $6,000 to $14,500, filter out some oxygen to create levels similar to those at a given altitude.

Siri Lindley, alternate for the U.S. women's triathlon team and recent World Cup champion, lives and trains at altitude in Boulder, Colo., but uses the tent when she is on the road. "When I spend my winters in Australia, for the nice weather and the great racing opportunities, I like to bring the altitude with me, so to speak," she said. "Of course, it takes a bit of getting used to sleeping in a tent--and certainly doesn't help my romantic prospects--but for now, it's worth it."

Bolton said his extreme form of altitude training is important for both physical and mental improvement. "It's good for me to get up in the mountains at night and reflect and focus on what I have to do," he said. "Psychologically, it's going to be beneficial anyway. And physiologically--we'll see."

Beneficial. But fair? The question has come up, Wilber said. "Some have objected to the use of [these methods] on ethical and legal grounds, claiming that they provide an unfair advantage."

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