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C8 Tuesday, July 23, 2013

FITNESS & WELL-BEING HEALTH BITES

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ltra-marathoner Andre Blumberg puts in 15 to 20 hours of training each week on tracks and trails around Hong Kong, his adopted city for the past 12 years. But for the German, it is the time spent at rest that is exhausting. On most nights, Blumberg seemingly slumbers at 9,000 feet (2,743 metres) above sea level, where the thin air makes sleeping difficult. But while most athletes travel for hours or even days to get to such high and often remote terrains to live and train, Blumberg has a hermetically sealed altitude tent in his Mei Foo apartment. This hypoxic, or low-oxygen, tent has a generator that pumps in a predetermined mixture of low-oxygenated air while removing carbon dioxide, recreating the conditions of “living high and training low”. This forces the body to produce more oxygen-carrying red blood cells and may lead to better endurance when performing workouts at sea level. “It takes some time to get used to and, initially, I found myself waking up during the night,” says Blumberg, 43, the IT director of a power company. The tent costs about HK$37,300. Its altitude can be adjusted slowly as the body adapts, with the generator able to simulate up to 21,000 feet (6,400 metres), slightly higher than Camp II at Mount Everest. Hong Kong’s highest peak, Tai Mo Shan, is only 957 metres. It has proven a valuable training tool for Blumberg, who is in the midst of attempting the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning, a series of four 100-mile (160kilometre) trail races in the US over 10 weeks. This past weekend, he completed the second leg, the Vermont 100. “Since I don’t have sufficient time to live at and acclimatise to altitude, I use altitude simulation to get used to the added exertion and stress that I will experience during races,” he says. The concept of sleeping in altitude chambers or training with altitude simulators is not new, with the US Navy SEALs and professional athletes among users, including US swimmer Michael Phelps and British triathlon world champion Jonathan Brownlee. But lately, such equipment has become more accessible. In Asia, Hypoxico, a producer of high-altitude training equipment, has had clients from the region, particularly Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea. A basic home unit, which

Training gear that mimics the low-oxygen conditions of high altitudes is becoming more accessible to athletes, but not all experts agree it works, says Calvin Yang

INTO THIN

AIR Ultra-marathoner Andre Blumberg spends his nights sleeping in a high-altitude simulator in his Mei Foo home. Photo: Lloyd Belcher Visuals consists of an Everest Summit II hypoxic generator, deluxe queen-sized bed tent and a workout kit, starts at HK$27,200. “We can safely simulate up to 6,400 metres with the knowledge that if your SpO2, or blood oxygen saturation, levels go to unsafe levels, you can simply step out of the tent to sea level conditions,” says Hypoxico vicepresident Matthew Eckert. His customers, aged between 12 and 79 years old, typically see improvements after three weeks. Conventional high-altitude

It is better to be able to train at near 100 per cent of the body’s potential MARCO FERDINANDI, PURE FITNESS

training – the concept of “live high, train high”, and returning to sea level for competition – has its drawbacks. “The adaptation period is rather long,” says Lo Ka-kay, senior sports science officer at the Hong Kong Sports Institute. “Some athletes may suffer from headaches, diarrhoea and insomnia if they cannot adapt well. It may be necessary for the athletes to decrease their training intensity and this may result in them being detrained when they return to sea level. “Furthermore, the athletes may suffer from the detrimental effects of chronic hypoxia, such as muscular mass loss, fatigue or deteriorated aerobic performance,” Lo adds. Increasingly, athletes have been switching to the “live high, train low” approach. The method has been adopted by most athletes at the Hong Kong Sports Institute since 2005, with some demonstrating significant improvements in endurance

and VO2 max, or maximal oxygen consumption, tests. “Living at altitude brought about significant increases in red blood cell mass and also haemoglobin concentration,” Lo explains. “Simultaneous training at a lower elevation allows these athletes to achieve running velocities similar to their sea level running velocities, inducing beneficial neuromuscular adaptations.” Some researchers are unconvinced of the benefits of altitude training methods, arguing the competitive edge is more mental than physical. A recent study by Swiss researcher Carsten Lundby found no difference in blood measurement or performance between elite cyclists who spent 16 hours a day in altitude rooms and those living at sea level. “Although scientific research on the topic produces mixed reviews, many coaches still believe in it,” Hong Kong rowing coach Chris Perry says.

“Different athletes take different times to adapt, so it is best to go to altitude to check how each athlete will respond.” The Sports Institute is now modifying a room in the athletes’ hostel into a hypoxic room, and will unveil a ninestorey building with two hypoxic rooms later this year. Also, the institute sends its athletes on stints to the mainland. France and New Zealand. Thinking of gaining a competitive edge? Here are several options available to simulate high altitude training conditions of 1,300 to 2,500 metres in your home. Altitude chamber This device uses generators to simulate a high-altitude environment within an enclosed area, allowing the athlete to run on a treadmill or ride a stationary bicycle while breathing in a mixture of lowoxygenated air. A typical unit costs about HK$27,000.

“One of the benefits of using such training options is the ability to train anywhere,” says Hong Kong runner Yeung Yat-hung, who trained at altitude in Yunnan province for two months last year. “With altitude simulation, I can train at a specific elevation to achieve more effective results.” Pure Fitness introduced Asia’s first high-altitude chamber in 2004, but it was in operation at its IFC outlet for fewer than two years. “At the time, training in a hypoxic chamber was believed to greatly enhance performance, especially for endurance athletes,” says Marco Ferdinandi, Pure Fitness’ regional fitness operations director. “However, the science no longer supported it. “For training purposes, it is better to be able to train at near 100 per cent of the body’s potential rather than place restrictions such as low oxygen that will inhibit positive adaptations,” he says. Intermittent hypoxic training (IHT) mask A slightly cheaper and more practical option, this is a handheld mask to alternate short inhalations of hypoxic air, delivered from a hypoxicator, with inhalations of ambient air. This reportedly triggers the desired adaptations in oxygen transport, improving aerobic and anaerobic performance. The mask is available from Go2Altitude and Hypoxico. “With such training options, there is less chance to be overtrained. It helps to get me in peak physical condition before major games,” says Asian Games medallist Daniel Lee Chi-wo, a former full-time triathlete at the Hong Kong Sports Institute. “But it has to be carefully monitored because it can have negative effects if not done properly.” Altitude house This is a full apartment where the oxygen pressure is reduced by flushing the premise with air diluted with nitrogen. The Hong Kong rowing team was based in such a house in Sweden while training at sea level. “The effect of this training does not last a long time and will fade away quickly when the team comes back to sea level,” says Perry. “It is really important to get the timing right before the competition.” Hypoxico offers the K2 high flow system for converting an apartment or office for high-altitude living, at HK$466,000. life@scmp.com

Smoking deterrent in plain sight Plain packaging for cigarettes seems to help curb tobacco consumption, early findings from Australia suggest. Plain brown packaging with graphic health warnings taking up three-quarters of the front of the pack for all tobacco products was implemented Down Under last December, the only country in the world to do so. In a study in BMJ Open, researchers interviewed 536 cigarette smokers in Victoria state in November, when both plain and branded packs were available. Compared to those still using branded ones, plainpack smokers were 66 per cent more likely to think their cigarettes were of poorer quality than in the previous year, and 70 per cent were more likely to find them less satisfying. They were also 81 per cent more likely to have thought about kicking the habit at least once a day during the previous week.

A hearty breakfast Here’s another reason why breakfast is the most important meal of the day. A new Harvard School of Public Health study finds that those who skip it have a higher risk of coronary heart disease. Researchers tracked nearly 27,000 male health professionals aged from 45 to 82 for 16 years, starting in 1992. During the study, 1,572 of the men had first-time cardiac events. Those who reported they skipped breakfast had a 27 per cent higher risk of heart attack or death from coronary heart disease than those who didn’t. The study appears in the American Heart Association journal, Circulation.

Does obesity worsen asthma? Genes linked to chronic inflammation in asthma may be more active in people who are obese, according to research from the University at Buffalo in New York. This increased gene expression – more than double in the morbidly obese – can cause certain white blood cells to produce far greater amounts of inflammatory factors that contribute to allergic inflammation and other abnormalities in the bronchial passages. “Our findings point the way to the management of asthma in the obese through simple weight reduction,” says Dr Paresh Dandona, the university’s chief of endocrinology, diabetes and metabolism. Jeanette Wang

FIT AND FAB

Sharing the passion ................................................ Rachel Jacqueline life@scmp.com Running is often considered a solitary pursuit, especially for those in search of a personal best. But not for this year’s Standard Chartered Half Marathon runner-up, Jane Hodgskin. Together with running partner Charlotte Cutler, Hodgskin, 30, organises the weekly “Tuesday Track” – a high-intensity, high-speed running session at the Aberdeen track for aspiring running elite and rookies alike. Sharing her passion has been the secret to her success. It began six years ago when Hodgskin ran her first race in Hong Kong. She nervously noted the willowy, fit-looking Cutler to her right. The gun went off and the pair battled it out stride for stride until the five kilometremark, where Cutler “blew me away”, she says. The pair reunited at the finish and have been training partners – and best of friends – since. Others soon joined their weekly training sessions. As word spread among the running

community, the numbers doubled, then tripled. Up to 60 runners now join the free session each week. “I believe you should never have to pay to run,” says Hodgskin, the communications adviser for Asia at Linklaters. “[The group] helps me as well. I have so many people to push me along. When you’re training for a race, you can let it consume you, but you have to keep a balance and not get carried away by it.” Growing up, Hodgskin was a competitive swimmer and triathlete (at 16, she won a bronze medal at the Australian Junior Championships). Her father, an accomplished runner, would encourage her, although she didn’t start running seriously until leaving school. She has clocked a number of impressive personal records in the five-kilometre (18 minutes: 30 seconds), 10-kilometre (38:40) and half-marathon distance (1:24:00). Did you think your running career was over when you moved here? I had in mind that my running would take a bit of a back seat. I had no idea that Hong Kong would be a place to run. I just

pictured it as a concrete jungle. When I got here, I was just blown away by how much I could actually run – particularly on the trails. Of course it’s different, but you adjust. Is running about the destination or the journey? The journey is the destination. It’s all about the experience that gets you to wherever you want to go. At the beginning of each race, I think back to everything I went through to get me there, and then realise I’m at my destination. All the hard work’s been done – I just have to do the home sprint, which is the race. What’s the greatest lesson you’ve learned over the years? I’ve come to realise the importance of cross-training. I don’t think you should run every day. If you want to improve, you have to do quality stuff like track. I only run four times per week and three of those sessions are quality, with one easy run. I combine this running schedule with two

Jane Hodgskin. Photo: Paul Yeung

weights sessions at the gym and some swimming – if I have time. Rest and recovery is part of being a good runner. Even when I’ve had three months off for a stress fracture, I will actually come back much stronger because my body and my mind have rested. What’s your relationship to running these days compared to when you were a young athlete? I always think runners will never stop running. Once you’re a runner, even if you’re not competing, you’ll always get up in the morning and just go for a run. I think running will always be a part of me; it energises me and it’s a way of relaxing. For those who have never run on a track, what are three words that describe it? It’s empowering. Then there’s a sense of accomplishment. It’s also an adrenaline rush.

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