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The new High Altitude Cardio

Athletes like Mo Farah train in high altitude locations to get the edge – now a new centre in London offers high altitude action spinning, running and rowing.  But why would you? For day 14 of the 30 Workouts in 30 days challenge, Anna Magee tried it

When they trained for the London 2012 Olympics, many athletes – including King Mo – went to high altitude locations to get the edge on their competitors.

Training at high altitude, anything between 2000 and 2800 metres high – where the oxygen level is considerably lower – allows athletes to increase their red blood cell count, enabling them to compete more effectively at ground level because more oxygen is delivered to the muscles.

Now, instead of hitting Kenya’s Great Rift Valley and Fort Romeu in France, athletes can get their altitude training in…Bank.  At the new Altitude Centre, which opened in December they also offer classes in high altitude spinning, rowing and treadmill running for the rest of us too.

altitude exteriorBut if we’re not running Olympic marathons, what’s the point? I ask Roy McGregor, chief trainer.

spinning with roy

At high altitudes your body is forced to work harder to get oxygen into the muscles and metabolise it, he explains.  ‘Exercise at high altitudes and this effect means you can burn one and a half to two times the calories you would exercising at sea level,’ says McGgregor. Sea level being ground level. Plus, preliminary research has shown that those that live at higher altitudes are slimmer than the rest of us.

At The Altitude Centre they offer group classes and solo offerings and I had the latter with Roy.  It all takes place in the Altitude room where the oxygen is set at 15 per cent of the atmosphere’s gases (at ground level it’s around 20.9 per cent) – which is what you would get at 2700 metres high, think two cable cars up into the French Alps, easily.

altitude buttonaltitude oxygen setAccording to McGregor – a former competitive cyclist – not only can altitude training help athletes who have reached a plateau get their edge back, it can help the rest of us get fitter quickly by training our bodies to become more efficient in the way they use the oxygen.

altitude with screen

After a detailed medical induction, we start training in the Alttude room on the bike. The first thing I notice pedalling casually on the bike is that it’s harder than normal biking. With less oxygen available to them, muscles have to work – and work.  Once the interval inferno starts – only two lots of 10 second bursts at high speed and high hill climb interchanged with 90 seconds rest – my legs start to ache immediately.  Altitude training causes muscles to tire more quickly which makes them more efficient over time, McGregor explains.

Breathing is difficult during the training – I feel like I am having a cross between an asthma attack and a laughing fit after the intervals.  It feels like 15 years ago when I first started exercise, my heart is thumping in my head, I have no fitness and am back to scratch.  ‘In a way altitude training challenges people that are at any level, unfit, a bit fit or elite fit by making the environment they’re training in more difficult for their bodies to handle.  The body has no choice but to get more efficient at handling that environment which it does by getting fitter,’ says McGregor.

By the time we get to the treadmill, my legs are shaking – from two little 10 second intervals on the bike! –  and jogging along slowly feels like running through treacle.  I am begging for mercy after only three short 45 second intervals (I negotiated him down from a minute) and want to stop.

altitude treadmill

I did only a few short bursts of interval training on the bike and treadmill and cruised along for the rest of the time but burned 300 calories.  ‘Sessions can be much shorter at altitude because your body is working harder,’ says Macgregor, something clients love. Obviously.

It’s a data-lover’s wet dream too. There are all sorts of readings on levels of oxygen your body is using and what capacity you’re training at and during sessions, how hard each person is working is posted on a screen in the corner – with names – for all to see.  Not only super-tough but embarrassing.

anna altitude screen

Truth: it hurt like hell.  I My legs ached deeply after such a short time training and – I’ve never had this before – so did my abdominal muscles (during running and cycling).  Macgregor says it’s because you have to use more muscles at this altitude and as they tire quickly, they ache.

Plus, feeling like I couldn’t quite breathe made me a bit panicky.  I guess that’s why there are elite athletes that will put themselves through this kind of thing for results and people like me who just want have a bit of fun – which this wasn’t – though it obviously works.  It’s also a kind of cool thing to do to get a taste of what elite athletes go through.  As most clients are either mountaineers or athletes at The Altitude Centre, chances are next to your bike during class may be a football player or elite runner.  In fact, The Altitude Centre, along with working with sports science departments in universities up and down the country have installed altitude training rooms at clubs like Tottenham, Arsenal and the FA.

Afterwards I had a feeling that was almost post-coital in the wave of serenity that came over me on the Tube home.  Apparently once you leave the chamber, your body naturally takes in more oxygen than before leading to more serotonin – the brain’s happy chemical – being produced in the brain.

PROS Burn more calories in a shorter time, get fitter quicker CONS It hurts muscles a lot, it’s hard on the lungs (though it’s doing good, they tell me), it’s pricey

Where:  The Altitude Centre 6 Trump Street, Near Cheapside London

EC2V 8AF 020 7193 1626

How much: £39 for a solo session, £28 a class

Did I pay?  Yes

Calories burned: 300 Calories calculated using the Ki Fit Body Monitor



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