IHT for Racing at Altitude

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  • #5955

    I’m a 45 yo male mountain trail/ultra runner living at roughly sea level. Most of my racing is at lower altitude (southern US Blue Ridge/Smoky/Appalachian mountains), but I’ve been doing the Pikes Peak Marathon the past few years.

    Because I’m at sea level, and my nearest mountains max out at 6500′, there’s not much I’ve been able to do to acclimatize to the 14000′ that Pikes Peak reaches. I’ve instead made-do by getting in as good a shape as I possibly can, doing a ton of incline training, and hoping that the heat/humidity of my southern US training will help me a little in dry/cool Colorado. This strategy worked pretty well the first few times I’ve run the race, and I’ve placed in the top 10% of the field, but just out of reach of any kind of Age Group award category.

    Frustrated by this, and wanting to better my times in general, this year I implemented some Intermittent Hypoxic Training, very similar to the product/method described in this Slowtwitch article:


    This method effectively removes the oxygen through a rebreather, which contains scrubbers to remove the corresponding CO2 as well. You perform “intervals” of this low-oxygen breathing in order to stimulate acclimatization. This method has been around for many decades, first used by Russian fighter pilots in training.

    There’s not a lot of material on this online for run training, so I cobbled together a plan based on the documentation I found on the various product websites selling this stuff. Basically, I followed an introductory period with a rest period, then a type of “load” period where I maxed out my exposure for 15 consecutive days, then I tapered that during my marathon taper and stopped altogether 4 days out from my first race (I doubled this year, so I did both the Ascent and the Marathon on back to back days). I arrived in Colorado (6500′) two days before the Ascent, so my IHT ended 2 days prior to that.

    I drove to the 14000′ summit for a tourist trip in the AM the day before the Ascent but other than that and a short run the day I arrived, I rested just as I have previous years.

    I was in at least as good shape fitness-wise as years past, as evidenced by various tests I use for pace/HR/etc. I felt like I was actually in a little better shape than I was my PR year.

    For the Ascent, I planned/hoped to beat my best ever Ascent time which I had set in the marathon in a previous year. This was based on my fitness and my hope that my IHT work would level out the playing field a bit for me, a flat lander, against all the locals that live at altitude.

    Instead, I underperformed, missed my PR by 4 minutes, and have never felt worse at the upper levels of altitude.

    There’s probably a number of things I can blame for that, I probably went out a bit fast since I was going for an aggressive goal, but what I am most baffled by is that the IHT work did not seem to help at all. So I’m wondering if I timed my taper of that badly, should I have stopped way before I did, or what? Unfortunately, there was no research I could find that tells when to stop IHT in relation to a race at altitude. I instead went by what I read that said stop altogether “3-5 days before competition.” I’m wondering if I should’ve stopped 3-5 days before going to altitude instead.

    Does anyone have any insight on this? Just trying to figure out some answers because it bugs the heck out of when a training strategy fails so badly as this did.

  • Inactive
    Anonymous on #5983


    First let me say that to answer your question is impossible because we can;t tell what other changes you may have made to your over all preparation. However I can speak in general about this topic.

    I have had pretty extensive experience with using Hypoxic tents to prepare athletes for sea level competition. The mechanism there is well understood and there is good evidence that the hematocrit increases with their use and a decent correlation to improved sea level performance exists. Same things can be said for sleep high/train (or race) low techniques which in many cases to improve performance. But the results of the many studies and anecdotal evidence is not still not 100% conclusive. With IHT there is even thiner evidential support. The main test the article refers to was sponsored by the company making the device. Hypoxico does the same with their IHT devices. Already a rather dubious practice that should give you pause.

    As the author says. He sorta, somewhat, maybe, thinks that, maybe this device did something but he can’t really tell. At least he is being honest but that is not exactly a glowing recommendation. So, why are you surprised that it was not magic for you?

    Understand that any study done in a lab to discover the efficacy of some training intervention has some serious limitations that make the study’s results less than 100% predictive when applied to the real world. I’m not familiar with the study quoted but here some of the common problems with trying to make conclusions based on lab studies.

    1) The duration of the test. Usually short.
    2) The subjects. Usually untrained college students looking for some easy money.
    3) The study looks at some physiological parameter rather than performance. maxVO2 is a favorite.
    4) The study looks at mean changes of the groups in the test parameter with standard deviations.

    The problems that often arise are that untrained, or less well trained individuals will respond readily to almost any imposed training regime, especially ones designed to improve maxVO2 which is known as a first wave response. This means that maxVO2 responds very quickly among the young and poorly trained but is almost unchangeable among the athletically mature.

    The conclusion of this study was that there was an increase in maxVO2 that ‘could’ (maybe?? my emphasis) result in tiny improvement in a cycling time trial. MaxVO2 does not correlate well to endurance performance among well trained athletes (r2=.6 many studies) where as economy and speed at the lactate threshold correlate much better (r2 form .8 to.95). So, it seems this study largely hinges on the assumption that improving maxVO2 will make you faster. For some folks it will for others it won’t. On top of that, the standard deviation in the results of this sort of test tend to run in +/- 10 to 15% range. This means that while the average improvement of maxVO2 (not performance, remember) is say 2% and there were some who saw much bigger improvements, there are an equal number that actually saw a significant reduction in the parameter being tested (maxVO2).

    In short it is no big surprise to me that you saw a decrease in performance. I suspect your early pacing error had more to do with this than using the device or not using it did.

    There is not good evidence that this device improves your altitude performance or acclimatization. The performance we see in our athletes be they runners or climbers or skiers is 90% the result of their training and only a tiny increment can be gained with most magic like diet, supplements, Hypoxic sleeping or IHT.

    I hope this helps,

    briguy on #5998

    Hi Scott – First, thanks very much for the detailed and thought-provoking response.

    I probably should’ve mentioned that I only found this excellent site through a blog post on TrainingPeaks recently. I had never known Uphill Athlete existed, or else I would’ve certainly been here in my ramp-up to PPA and PPM this year. There is really a wealth of info here, I’m only just scratching the surface in reading it all.

    I would like to clarify a few points in my post above:

    – I didn’t actually use the product shown in the link I provided, instead a different version that operated under the same principal/methods (and like the Hypoxico product you mentioned), using a rebreather to remove Oxygen. You’re clearly familiar with these methods/products, I guess I am clarifying for any other readers here.

    – While I would say I was optimistic that this training method would yield “some” results, I wouldn’t say I was expecting it to be “magic.” I still trained harder for this cycle than ever before, and doubled-down on some of the methods that worked for me previously. I only hoped that using this device/method might help me in the upper reaches of the race, above the treeline at PP (10000’+) where most suffer some, and flatlanders like myself suffer greatly. Instead, I felt worse than before, likely due to my aggressive pacing, which could’ve overwhelmed whatever benefit the IHT had provided.

    – Because I doubled this year, I raced the PPM the following day, and considering those circumstances, had a borderline-excellent race result there, or at the very least salvageable. Perhaps the IHT helped? Or maybe my much more conservative approach was the difference. Obviously, there’s no way to know for sure.

    – What I was also getting at with my post/query was the protocol I used for tapering off the IHT – doing so completely only 4-5 days from the race(s), but only 2 days prior to travelling to 6800′. Because there is no documentation anywhere on the proper protocol for this, I had nothing to go on but instinct. I’m wondering now if I should’ve given it more time before I traveled to high-altitude.

    – Lastly, one more little tidbit of information, the talk among the racers on the day of the PPA, was that it was a “bad day for oxygen.” A combination of unusually warm temps, combined with low pressure, made the altitude feel higher than it actually was (like 16000′ vs the actual 14115′). I haven’t been able to substantiate this anywhere though, as there are no weather stations atop Pikes Peak to check the actual numbers. But there is a thread on this topic on the PPM websites message board.

    Anyway, again I thank you for the response and all of the excellent information.

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