Inside an altitude chamber that simulates conditions at 9,000 feet above sea level, Marquette University guards Wesley Matthews and Jerel McNeal start pedaling stationary bikes. Realizing the challenge ahead, they look less than thrilled. Within minutes, Matthews and McNeal experience shortness of breath. Heart rates rise quickly. In five minutes, Matthews and McNeal have stressed their bodies far beyond what they could do on a bike outside the chamber.
Mercifully, the altitude workout ends after 15 minutes, though both athletes feel they went through a conditioning session four to five times as long. In some ways, they did.
Given how the body must adapt to changes at higher altitudes, Matthews and McNeal gain more from brief workouts inside the chamber than longer conditioning sessions outside. As a result, the altitude exercise unit containing oxygen-reduced air offers an athlete's dream-conditioning scenario. Less time on a bike or treadmill. Less physical wear and tear. More stamina. Faster recovery. Studies have shown that after six weeks working out in altitude exercise chambers, an athlete's time to exhaustion can increase up to 42 percent.
"I'd love to be able to play and never get tired," said a sweat-covered Matthews after exiting the chamber set up in a back corner of the Al McGuire Center weight room. "But the smallest advantage we'll take. If we're 10 percent better at fighting through fatigue and 10 percent less tired [late in games], then that could be big for us."
Long the exclusive domain of endurance athletes, altitude training appears ready for the sports mainstream with the increasing popularity of altitude exercise chambers and sleeping areas, also called hypoxic chambers. Athletes have commonly used hyperbaric chambers, which in contrast increase the amount of oxygen in a sealed area to aid injury recovery.
After purchasing a customized altitude unit this summer for $41,700, Marquette became the first college basketball team in the country to integrate the hypoxic chamber into its training regimen, following the lead of professional sports franchises such as the Green Bay Packers, Detroit Pistons, Miami Heat, and Phoenix Suns.
Professional athletes ranging from NBA players Shaquille O'Neal, Gilbert Arenas, and Ben Gordon to NFL players A.J. Hawk, Anthony Gonzalez, and Al Johnson to MLS players James Riley and Brian Ching have tried sleeping at simulated altitude. The Philadelphia Flyers encourage their athletes to use sleeping systems, and several players have invested in the technology.
As teams and individuals persist in the never-ending search for a competitive edge and continue to collect data from artificial altitude training, Pistons strength and conditioning coach Arnie Kander predicts more franchises will invest in the technology and "it will be in most [NBA] facilities in give or take 10 years." Marquette head athletic trainer Jayd Grossman foresees the exercise chambers "becoming less a luxury and more the standard," believing it's only a matter of time until a well-funded high school purchases a unit.
"Anything that gives your players even an opportunity for an edge you want to try and do," said Marquette coach Tom Crean, whose players work out two to three times a week in the exercise chamber. "Sometimes who can last and execute better for longer can get it done."
Questions, however, remain about what translates to the field when athletes work out or sleep at altitude. While endurance athletes look to faster times for evidence that artificial altitude training works, coaches and trainers with Marquette, the Pistons, and Suns talk about a trial-and-error approach as they integrate sessions at altitude into their conditioning programs. They are continually adjusting altitude workout content, length, and intensity to determine what produces the best results.
"A lot of people don't truly understand what it can be used for," said Kander. "They're expecting immediate change. If you expect it to take you from 20 to 40 points in a game, it's not happening. You have to do all the other work that's required.
"It's a big piece, but it's not a shortcut."
Taste of homeGrowing up in Colorado Springs, Riley, a defender for the New England Revolution, experienced the conditioning advantages altitude provides. Throughout most of his career, he excelled at team fitness tests, outlasting teammates raised at lower elevations. But shortly after joining New England, he lost that edge. When Colorado Altitude Training (CAT), the leading producer of altitude exercise and sleeping systems, pitched its products and technology to the Revolution in July, Riley saw an opportunity to bring a piece of Colorado Springs to his regular-season home in Newton.
CAT president Stephen Nevin made similar presentations to the Celtics and Patriots. But none of the local professional franchises has added simulated altitude training to their conditioning programs. While Celtics trainer Ed Lacerte came away from the presentation acknowledging "the concept has validity," he added that he "could not justify the investment at this moment." Similar thinking dissuaded the Patriots and Revolution from purchasing units, which range from $40,000 to $100,000 depending on size and level of customization.
"If you have the luxury of access to [the technology], by all means take advantage of it," said Lacerte. "Everything appears scientifically based, but I don't think it's absolutely necessary."
Eager to find out for himself, Riley installed a walk-in demo tent around his queen-sized bed two months ago, gradually increasing the altitude to an elevation of around 9,000 feet. Although the tent occupies most of his bedroom, Riley views it as a small inconvenience for the chance to essentially train his body while sleeping.
By following the "live high, train low" principle in which athletes spend several hours per day at altitude yet train close to sea level at normal intensity, Riley hopes he will enjoy more endurance and experience less fatigue when the MLS playoffs start next week.
"Obviously, I'm not doing it the ideal way because you're here and gone as a traveling athlete," said Riley. "I've been skeptical with different things in the past. But all you have to do is go home, relax, put your TV on, go to sleep. It's working without really working. I look at it as diversifying my training investment portfolio."
The "live high, train low" method promotes several key physiological changes as athletes acclimate to thin air, which basically leads to an increased number of oxygen-carrying red blood cells and more efficient delivery and absorption of oxygen. The result is improved endurance and reduced fatigue, though it varies depending on how much time athletes spend in the chamber and at what altitude, as well as overall training programs.
Sharing the news
With an altitude sleeping unit set near 15,000 feet combined with daily practices, Arenas works to achieve the right "live high, train low" balance. He cites anecdotal proof it works.
"The altitude chamber rejuvenates you a lot quicker," said the Washington Wizards guard. "So, when you're playing, you're almost always 100 percent. How I felt in the first quarter was the same as how I felt in the fourth quarter. I had the same feeling in my legs. It showed by me hitting game-winners all the time."
Arenas ranked third in the NBA in fourth-quarter scoring last season, behind only Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade. He averaged nearly as many points in the fourth quarter as he did in the first, by far his two most productive periods.
Since there is nothing shy about Arenas, he did not hesitate to spread the word about "living" at altitude when he first tried it more than a year ago. The same cannot be said about other athletes experimenting with the technology. Several professional athletes who use or recently have used sleeping chambers declined to comment for this article, citing concern about how it would be perceived or discomfort with appearing to endorse a product they cannot yet definitively claim works.
Additionally, when the World Anti-Doping Agency declared altitude sleeping units in violation of the "spirit of sport" last year, it became awkward for some athletes to publicly embrace the methodology. Although WADA prefers to see athletes play a more active role in improving performance than sleeping chambers require, they have not banned the technology. Privately, athletes remain curious about altitude chambers and unconcerned about the WADA characterization. Like Riley, Arenas, and others, athletes who employ the technology usually do so after consultation with team trainers about its safety, legality, and effectiveness.
"When I first said I had one, I got bashed about it," said Arenas. "People thought I was weird, but I've had 14 other players call me to figure out if it really works. They see me running around the court, not getting tired, and they're like, 'Let me ask about this thing.' "
With one of those calls coming from O'Neal, Arenas views himself as a trendsetter. O'Neal asked Arenas what benefits "living" in a chamber produced. Arenas highlighted the rejuvenating effects, especially helpful for a veteran. O'Neal was already familiar with the exercise chamber as the Heat tried a demo unit from CAT last season. That unit traveled to the Suns this summer, but O'Neal had a walk-in tent installed during the offseason.
Advances in technology such as room conversions and fully automated chambers have made simulated altitude training more popular and accessible. In a converted room, only a thermostat-like control panel hints at the special training environment created.
As one of the first to take advantage of room conversion technology, distance running coach Alberto Salazar said, "It really is a way of bringing the mountain to us."
On the fast trackChauncey Billups of the Pistons suffered a groin injury near the end of last season, the kind of muscle strain that can linger and make rehabilitation efforts difficult. But the point guard recovered with surprising speed, missing just two games and logging 36 minutes in his first game back. Billups and Kander believe the team's altitude exercise chamber played a role in the quick recovery.
After a 10-minute session on the stationary bike at 9,000 feet, Billups told Kander he felt "less sore" and like he "worked out for an hour." On the court the next day, Billups successfully executed a series of defensive slides that were too painful to try 24 hours earlier.
"I wasn't healed, but I felt a little better when I came out of the tank than when I went in," said Billups. "I don't know if it was because of what I did. It probably sped up my process."
When an injured athlete can return to peak condition with shorter rehab workouts, the transition back to competition is smoother and quicker. Kander also has seen the exercise chamber help athletes maintain their conditioning despite limited practice and playing time.
"The rehab aspect is probably what's going to affect more people," said Kander. "If you can get guys back quicker, get them on the court faster and the risk of reinjury is reduced, that's huge."
Enjoying a fresh start in Phoenix after an injury-riddled stint in Orlando, Grant Hill took advantage of the chamber recently purchased by the Suns. He went through regular workouts inside the chamber in the six weeks before preseason started. From training camp in Tucson, Hill reported that his body felt strong and fresh. Although it went unsaid that the chamber could help Hill remain injury-free this season and extend his career, that is definitely the hope.
"I was very efficient in my offseason workouts," said Hill. "I was able to get a lot done in a shorter amount of time. At first, you feel out of shape in there, gasping for air, but slowly you see improvement and carryover. It seemed like the transition from conditioning off the court to working out on the court was a lot smoother than it has been in the past."
As acceptance and usage of simulated altitude chambers grow, the push into the mainstream will likely come from basketball, primarily NBA teams, for a combination of physiological, logistical, and financial reasons. If teams can increase an athlete's time to exhaustion and essentially put fresher players on the court in the fourth quarter, then that could mean the difference between winning and losing. Smaller rosters also make it more practical to train NBA players in an exercise chamber, and NBA teams appear willing to pay for the technology. Currently, two more NBA franchises plan to try altitude exercise chambers.
The big breakthrough likely will come from a team that uses artificial altitude exercise units to help win a championship or a high-profile player who follows the "live high, train low" method during a career year.
With his sights set on playing in the NBA, Matthews already has considered investing in a sleeping unit if he reaches the next level. He said if it helps him play well and produce, "why not?" Like Matthews, more athletes and teams could be coming to the same conclusion.
Shira Springer can be reached at email@example.com.