Living and training at altitude has long been used as a way to increase the oxygen carrying capacity of the human body. If you live at high altitude, your body responds by increasing your number red blood cells. These red blood cells carry oxygen from the lungs to the muscles during exercise.
Sensors in your kidneys detect a lower than normal oxygen level and then release a hormone called erythropoietin (EPO). This hormone stimulates an increase in red blood cell formation.
Elite athletes sometimes use synthetic EPO for this purpose. This drug can increase your red blood cell production and expand your blood’s capacity to carry oxygen to your muscles.
But EPO is banned in competitive sports and potentially harmful as it can make your blood too thick and put undue stress on your heart. And moving to the mountains is not always an option.
What about “elevation” masks as a method of hypoxic training for running?
These masks provide resistance to your breathing and have been shown to increase your ability to breathe more air. It’s basically like strength training for your breathing muscles. So they are effective in that regard.
And while exercising with one of these masks has been shown to reduce the oxygen level in the blood, the reduction was not as much as would be expected with actual training at altitude. And they don’t reduce the oxygen level to the degree shown to increase EPO. (See the study reviewed below.)
Also, there is not much scientific support for the idea that breathing increased volumes of air will improve your performance. “Elevation” masks do increase the strength of respiratory muscles, but do not improve performance in exercise. (See reference below.) This is probably because breathing volume is not the rate limiting factor in performance for most people.
Getting more air in and out of your lungs is not the problem, getting the oxygen from that air into the blood and from the blood into the muscle cells is the issue. And to do that, you need to increase your number of red blood cells.
So “elevation” masks have not been shown to increase EPO production and therefore increase red blood cell count. But there is a way to naturally stimulate production of EPO by your own body, so you don’t have to move to the mountains, or take performance enhancing drugs.
Reducing Blood Oxygen During Exercise Increases EPO
Some researchers in Canada were curious about the decrease in oxygen concentration in the blood that happens during exercise at elevation. They wanted to know if it would cause an increase in the hormone erythropoietin (EPO).
Previous researchers had shown that it takes a minimum of two hours of breathing the low-oxygen air present at high altitudes to stimulate EPO production. So these researches set out to answer a question.
Would EPO increase be stimulated in less time than 2 hours, if exercise is added to the mix? If so, it would be a great method of hypoxic training for running.
They tested 5 athletes by having them exercise for 3 minutes at two separate levels of elevation, 1000 meters and 2100 meters. The researchers measured their EPO levels before the exercise and after. They took blood samples 4, 7, 24, and 48 hours after the exercise intervention.
At the 1000-meter level, the athletes had an average time of 24 seconds below 91% oxygen saturation measured with a pulse oximeter, and 24% higher EPO levels 24 hours after the exercise.
At the 2100-meter level the athletes had an average time of 136 seconds below 91% oxygen saturation, with this measurement dipping to an average of 82%. 24 hours later their EPO levels were 36% higher. Spending 136 seconds below 91% stimulated an increase in EPO.
A study using “elevation” masks did not find this degree of hypoxemia (low oxygen) during exercise, even when the mask was set on what the manufacturer claimed was equivalent to 4572 meters of elevation.
The researchers also measured EPO in a group of people who were exposed to 13 minutes of breathing low-oxygen air and a placebo group who had no intervention. Both of these groups had no elevation in EPO during the 48 hours they were monitored.
So exercise that reduces your oxygen saturation in your blood to under 91% for roughly 136 seconds is likely to give you a bump in EPO production.
And here is the best way I’ve found to accomplish this without moving to the mountains. (I’m not opposed to moving to the mountains. It’s just not always convenient for many people.)
Breath Holding During Exercise: A method of hypoxic training for running.
This comes from the Buteyko Method. Avoid doing this in a swimming pool or body of water. You can use this method with any land based exercise. It creates a low oxygen and high carbon dioxide environment in your body. This is the most convenient way to implement hypoxic training for running.
- Inhale and exhale through your nose.
- Hold your nose.
- Proceed with your chosen exercise (walking, running, hopping, squatting) until you feel a strong urge to breathe.
- Let go of your nose and breathe through it until your breathing has relaxed. Keep exercising as before.
- Repeat for 10 rounds or more.
- You can perform this exercise several times a day. We currently don’t have research to confirm or deny if more than once per day increases your EPO level more than doing it just once per day.
You can use a pulse oximeter to monitor this exercise. It is a small device that fits on the tip of your finger and reads your pulse rate and the amount of oxygen saturation of your blood as a percentage.
Many of the available monitors have a time delay of 10 seconds or so. Keep that in mind if you don’t see the number decrease immediately.
There is no need to lower your oxygen saturation below 80 percent. According to the study described above, getting your oxygen saturation to less than 91 percent for approximately 24 seconds can result in an increase of EPO of up to 24 percent, while maintaining this saturation around 136 seconds can increase your EPO about 36 percent.
Text from Run Better Now