Saturday, August 31, 2002 - Athlete Perspective
Attitude at Altitude

By: Sara Renner

September is the only month that we spend off snow. It will also be our first month where we will start to focus on altitude training in preparation for the upcoming ski season. Canmore, the hometown of the National Cross Country Ski Team, just isnít high enough to do the job. Since there is no gondola to the top of the Mount Robson, we have found a clean, comfortable and given our climbing abilities, safer compromise.

The desired result of this balancing act of training, resting and altitude exposures is to deliver us to the World Cup and World Championships in our best possible shape. Time at altitude specifically increases hemoglobin levels and that enables your blood to carry more oxygen. This gives me reason to rejoice as it enables an extra kick to the finish line just when you need it the most.

Altitude training also allows you to adapt to high altitude faster and easier. This is important, thanks to global warming, since more races are being held at elevation because of mild winters.

We will sleep in special rooms with controlled and limited supply of oxygen that simulate higher elevations. This program is not intended to test our tolerance when sleep deprived although I sometimes wonder. Dr. Dave Smith from the University of Calgary is a leader in altitude research and he suggests that their protocol will make a big difference in our performances.

While countries such as Norway and Sweden are skeptical of the benefits, Canadians have found a system that work. Prior to the Salt Lake City Olympics, the only Canadian teams that used the altitude tents were the Speed Skaters and Cross Country Skiers. You canít argue the success of Speedskating and the huge improvements made by the Nordic team.

The real victim of the whole operation is the individual from the University who is stuck supervising and has to check us every half an hour while we snooze away. We wear a little sensor on our finger that measures saturation of oxygen in our blood and our heart rate. It takes differing amount of limited oxygen to reach the perfect oxygen saturation in each athlete. Part of our success is that the program is individualized.

At times, the sleeping is the biggest workout of all. Your body compensates for the lack of oxygen by increasing the heartrate. All this work makes one thirsty. Peeing is a possibility, though not recommended because opening the door allows the oxygen pressure to rise and your blood saturation follows suite. And then it takes hours before the ideal range is reached again. To drink or not drink? It is quite the dilemma.

Sport has evolved. In grade 9 I wrote in my journal that I wanted to go to the Olympics. I knew it would take grit but I never imagined that it would involve simulated altitude.


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