Friday, July 12, 2013

Sleeping at 10,000 Feet - Kinda

I've alluded to this fact in past posts, but I haven't talked too much about this.

Confession: I've been sleeping on top of a high mountain.... In Dallas, Texas. 


At the start of May, I rented a Hypoxico altitude tent to use in preparation for Bighorn Trail Run 50K in mid-June. It came on the recommendation of Twitter friend Jerry who had felt like it was really effective.

With 6 weeks initially to sleep in the tent before Bighorn, my big motivations for doing this were:

1) I never wanted to feel like I did at Jemez 2012 ever again. That race topped out at 10,400 feet, and I felt very very ill up there. We later found out my iron levels were non-existent, making my oxygen carrying capacity zilch, but I didn't know once my levels were restored, which took months, if I was still susceptible to altitude sickness. I hadn't really spent any time in a mountain environment, with or without iron in my blood cells, to know. But I knew that I felt like I was dying on Pajarito Ski Mountain in New Mexico last year. 10 steps then a minute of breathing. It took me 3 hours to go 6 hours that day before medical pulled me at mile 20 and put me on oxygen. Never again. That was a nightmare.

2) I'm already a back of the pack runner in ultramarathons. You add an altitude disadvantage in a race where most people live high, and I knew the Bighorn 50K could be a VERY. LONG. DAY. I was excited about the prospect of negating some altitude effects and running close to my slower-than-the-average-ultrarunner paces!


I didn't make a huge big deal about the tent because I thought the reaction would be what eventually I did get in a knee-jerk way from a few people: "Hey, That's Cheating!" Or it was a joking remark where you know 50% of the time, that's how they really feel.
Um, no, it's legal blood doping. It's like the elites moving to Silverton, Colorado, and living for 4 months there before Hardrock 100. It's the difference between an Ironman who has a $10,000 bike and one with a $2,000 bike.
It does not REPLACE training. It just helps to give an edge on top of whatever you bring to the party. Which means if you don't train right, it can only do so much.

The next reaction is "Oh my gosh, is it expensive?" The unit is actually rent-to-own for up to 8 weeks of use. So at any time up to the end of 8 weeks, I had the option to buy the Hypoxico altitude tent system I had been using and apply all my rental dollars directly to the overall cost.

This is what I eventually chose to do. After 6 weeks of use for Bighorn, I had 5 more weeks to the Tahoe Rim Trail race, so in buying it, I actually made up about half the cost in what that additional 5 week rental would be. And if I use it for just one more 6 week period in the next couple years, I'll have equaled out to what renting it the whole time would have cost. For the stupid crazy stuff we athletes can spend our money on, I found it rather affordable.
If you look in your closet and find any Lululemon apparel, you can afford it. If you have an expensive tri-bike, you can afford it. If you have multiple pieces of name brand running apparel or 10 pairs of running shoes not bought on clearance, you can afford it.
The last anticipated reaction I thought would come, and may have but people wouldn't say it to my face, is "Who Does She Think She Is?!?"
Yeah, I'm no elite. Far from. And a lot of the elites are using this system - Hal Koerner used it before winning Hardrock 100 last year, Timmy Olson used it this year, Karl Meltzer used it before Bandera 100K in January, Devon Yanko and her husband sleep in one, and the list goes on with many other high profile names.
But where those folks might see a 0.5% improvement to VO2 at the same effort, I see big improvements. And that's pretty cool. I actually provided all my pre-use and post-Bighorn metabolic testing data to Hypoxico in the hopes that it helps them show what this tent can do for "ordinary" or "average joe" ultrarunners like myself. I know teams of doctors follow the elites around, testing them routinely, but there are few like me using the tent, and probably fewer quantifying the improvements made by the tent.

So What Is This Thing?

There's a generator that produces some humming white noise, but the hose attachment to the tent is long so I put it at the far away end of our master bathroom, and it's not too noisy there. Good ambient noise anyway.

My tent is made for a queen sized mattress. They also make one for king size. The mattress and everything goes into the tent. The tent itself didn't take too much work to put together. Getting the big mattress in was actually the hardest part.

It is actually quite spacious inside. I can sit up in it without a problem. At night, here's my view:

A hose runs from the generator through a hole into the tent. The tent has giant flaps on each side that can be zipped open during the day when you aren't sleeping and folded up on top of the tent. The hose lets in the right oxygen level and when it's zipped up, the pressure in the tent is simulated to the high altitude then too.

Occasionally, during the day, I even work on my computer from the tent.
Cinna sees VO2 improvements too
It is hard to just jump out of at a moment's notice. You are zipped into this tent of plastic.
Plastic everywhere!

And it does get a little warm with all the plastic. Usually we keep our house at 76 degrees and a low ceiling fan setting in the master bedroom. With the tent and probably a little from the heat created by the generator in the bathroom, I kept the house each night at 74 degrees and a medium ceiling fan setting in the bedroom.

How do you do it?

Week 1 I started out at 4,000 feet altitude and slowly moved it up nightly until I was at 8,000 feet altitude. Hang out here a couple days, before I moved it up until I was at 9,000 feet altitude. I'm not going to lie - you sleep pretty bad during the adjustment time. It's very restless sleep. And I'm usually a pretty deep sleeper.

Once adjusted though, it's no different from a normal night... except you are in a plastic tent.

It takes 3-5 weeks to start seeing effects. I used it for 6 weeks leading up to Bighorn.

After Bighorn, I actually moved up to 10,100 feet of altitude. My oxygen saturation typically shows 87-90% at this altitude, versus the 98% we all walk around at if we're in good physical condition.

The system also had an exercise kit, where I can hook a mask up to the generator with a hose and run on a treadmill. I did this a handful of times, but for my use of time and the training I was doing, it was easier for this training phase to just go with the passive tent use.

There was also a suggested protocol, called Intermittent Hypoxic Training, where you sit for an hour a day. 5 minutes with the mask on, 5 minutes with it off. BUT the generator was set to 21,000 feet. In the life of a busy mom, I just couldn't make use of this protocol much. A dedicated hour of sitting doesn't come often. And at 21,000 feet, you can't just hang out and work on the computer. Your energy gets zapped and you just focus on not passing out. I'm not a doctor, but it refines alveoli in the lungs or some other such useful but not required aspect of adjusting to altitude.

Does It Work?

The elites seem to think so, and I personally think so too.

Right before Bighorn, we redid my metabolic testing, and without a big change in quality of workouts or total mileage, I saw great improvements.

Other sea level runners at Bighorn said they could definitely feel the altitude. Aside from an expected heart pounding in the head feeling on big uphills in the race, which would have been tough uphills even at sea level, I felt like I was able to run my normal paces at home. Even better...

Bandera 50K in January - very little climb, technical course - 9:52

Bighorn 50K in June - 5000 ft ascent, 8500 ft descent, technical course, 7000-8500 feet altitude most of the way - 9:30 (and that included going off course for 1.2 miles, so roughly 20 minutes off-course)

I knew I would be happy if I beat my Bandera time, so I was thrilled with this finish. And the tent helped give some confidence to pursue a race like Bighorn. Aside from me and my good friend Lesley, the other 30+ women in our age group were all from the 5 states right there around the race where they live at higher altitude.

I will stop using the tent once I go to Tahoe Rim Trail 50M next Saturday, and then I'll be able to tell you if it worked for that race, which averages about 9000 feet altitude the whole way.

In the meantime, I'm sharing the love and lending the tent to a friend who is training for Leadville 100, so he can enjoy 4 weeks of the effects!

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