This is what it's like to train at 21,000 ft

Altitude training is taking health and fitness to dizzying new heights

This is what it's like to train at 21,000 ft

Facilities at the Irish Altitude Chamber in Bluebell, Co Dublin.

How are those New Year's resolutions going? 

Whether you committed to becoming the next Conor McGregor, or opted for something a little more realistic, health and fitness is on the up. Social media has made us more health-conscious than ever, with news feeds bombarded with photos of avocado toasts and squat variations.

With that, however, it can become hard for the uninformed to separate the beneficial from the bollocks when it comes to exercise and keeping fit. 

One reserved for professional athletes, altitude training is now making its way to the masses. Also known as hypoxic training, it involves exercising in, living in, or otherwise breathing oxygen-reduced air for the purpose of improved athletic performance, pre-acclimatisation to altitude, and/or physical wellness.

Traditionally, individuals had to travel to or live at high elevations to obtain the benefits of altitude training (burpees on Table Mountain, anyone?) Now, conditions can be replicated in specially built facilities such as those at the Irish Altitude Chamber (IAC) in Bluebell, Co Dublin.

A watt bike chamber at the facility

The benefits

The IAC website lists multiple benefits of long-term altitude training - from skin rejuvenation, to reducing Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), to increased strength. Case studies show significant results can be seen is as few as eight sessions.

"Physiologically, it's proven that if you train at altitude, it increases you metabolism for 15 hours after you've completed a training session, so you're still burning fats," says Noel O'Brien, professional boxer and personal trainer at IAC.

"Your body is under so much stress and duress because of the conditions. It's forty minutes of condensed, intense training. And the more sessions you do, the harder it gets.

"In the chamber, their core temperature is raised and their oxygen levels are down. When they come out, they're back into 21% oxygen and they're reinvigorated. It's like giving someone a gas mask."

Personal training sessions are also offered at the IAC

Noel says participants, upon leaving the class, often need to sit or lie down directly after the session in order to readjust to normal conditions. But beyond that, side-effects are non-existent - in other words, the exhaustion typically associated with a standard gym or exercise session isn't there. 

"You can give so much and it doesn't have an adverse effect on you. You don't experience DOMS [delayed onset muscle soreness] either."

That said, people of all physical conditions taking the class don't appear to be suffering at the hands of the altitude. O'Brien says the classes given at the altitude chambers are open to people of any fitness levels - not just pro-athletes. 

IAC don't sponsor any athletes as of yet, but count members of SBG - more commonly known as John Kavanagh's martial arts gym - as their most high-profile clients. In the future, O'Brien says the IAC are looking at leasing out the facilities to sports teams

The science bit

Through the production of normobaric hypoxic (oxygen reduced) air, the IAC can simulate altitudes of up to 21,000ft (6,400m). 

A shed at the back of the building brings in air and separates it through a series of filters and membranes. They design, engineer and manufacture their chamber and each one is equipped with sensors monitoring altitude and temperature, controlled through technology made by Siemens.

Not a fad

O'Brien attributes the increased focus on altitude training - and fitness overall - with the economic crash.

"With the 'Tiger boom', it was all about drinking - it was good to be drinking. And then people went and fell. When you've no money, the easiest thing to do with no money is to train. You can go out on to the road, it costs you nothing, you feel good and it has a knock-on effect on your life.

"When this country hit rock bottom, people said: 'Right, well, what are we going to do? We can't socialise like we used to'. So they went back to the grassroots of training. It's a natural release of endorphins that costs you nothing.

"People used to drink feel to good. But if you train, you naturally get high off training and there's no adverse effect."

The IAC has eyes on expanding at home and abroad; a northside venture is in the pipeline in Dublin, as well as a facility on the Lee Road in Cork. Belfast has also been earmarked as another potential location.

"We started with one room with a mask," he says, having a background in boxing. "The concept never changed, it just got bigger."

Increased demand means classes are regularly fully booked - on the Sunday I attend, all morning classes are at maximum capacity. Customers are travelling from Meath, Wicklow to Tipperary to participate in classes. 

The combat chamber at the IAC

So what's it like?

Standard high intensity interval training (HIIT) classes are held within specially designated cardio chambers. This involves running, rowing or cycling at maximum effort for 90-second intervals, following by a 30-second break.

Temperature levels in the chamber range between 35 and 40 degrees Celsius, with oxygen levels at 15% (sea-level rates are typically measured at 21%). 

You complete a waiver form before the session, and are fitted with a heart monitor worn just under your bra line. From this, your heart rate (and everyone else's) is projected on to a monitor for everyone to see. You're also able to see how many calories you're burning during the session. Trainers are also occasionally fitted with an SpO2 reader, which tracks oxygen content or saturation in the body.

An SpO2 reader monitoring oxygen capacity during a break in the session

Heart rates prior to the class starting

Other than that, it's typical of your average gym class - flashy lighting and Now That's What I Call Dance on the sound system. But the key thing that will strike anyone partaking in a session over the intense heat and the profuse sweating is the profound sense of community the team at the IAC has established.

Everyone seems to know each other from the confines of the chamber and beyond. Everyone is rooting for each other (the names on the heart monitor help), so while everyone is held accountable for how hard they push themselves - it's encouragement, not pressure.

Training at a height comes at an elevated cost, mind - each class costs €15 and a yearly membership with the IAC will set you back a cool €1,000 (that's unlimited classes for the year, with a maximum of two classes taken per day). However O'Brien argues that both physically and physiologically, customers get more out of a sessions and that's reflected in the price point. 

"We're trying to facilitate all our members. We're the only ones using heat and altitude. A lot of them [gyms] are going to start following.

"Customer experience is key for us - our problem is we can't bring it to enough people."