From the Brownlee brothers to Mo Farah, runners the world over are well versed in the benefits of altitude training. Until recently, however, it’s felt like the preserve of the elite. For those of us unwilling or unable to travel to the lofty peaks of Boulder or Iten, what’s the alternative?
One answer is the growing number of altitude centres popping up around the UK. I’m here at the recently opened Virgin Active Walbrook Gym in central London, which boasts its own altitude chamber. And today I’ll be experiencing what it’s like to exercise at 3,300m above sea level.
“Doing intervals in here for half an hour will do so much for you than running for an hour outside,” says Nick Beer, our expert trainer. That’s because exercising increases levels of EPO, a hormone that stimulates the production of oxygen-carrying red blood cells.
Best of all, while elites only see marginal gains from exercising at altitude, amateur runners like me can see big gains in a short amount of time.
“Let’s say, for example, you’re on the final straight of a race and someone tries to overtake you,” says Beer. “There’s only so long they can sustain that pace before they need to recover by slowing down. You’ll naturally attack back but, because you’ve been training at altitude and can recover quicker than they can, you can attack again before them and be back in front in no time.”
In addition to this, altitude training is a serious calorie-burner. “Your body is having to work much harder as there’s less oxygen getting to your muscles,” says Beer. “Therefore, your body is being worked aerobically and anaerobically.”
So, what’s the catch? Simply that training at altitude is seriously difficult. Beginning with the treadmill workout, we start at 50% intensity and work our way up in 10% increments. The difference is palpable. Usually a non-sweater, in here I’m perspiring like mad.
Next, it’s on to the bikes. The warm-up could easily be a class in itself but, much to my dismay, there’s more to come. The lights dim, music pounds and away we go. My legs scream from the five-a-side game the night before. We work our way up to 90% of my maximum heart rate and I’m having to work seriously hard.
Finally done, I clamber off my bike walking like John Wayne. Altitude training is not easy but it is hugely beneficial – and through facilities like this, it’s now possible for both amateurs and elites to experience the high life.
Virgin Active’s Walbrook Gym boasts its own state-of-the-art altitude training centre: virginactive.co.uk