High-altitude training was once the preserve of only the most accomplished athletes. But now, thanks to a new facility in Dubai, runners, mountaineers and other fitness enthusiasts can enjoy the same effect without leaving the safety of a hotel gym.
Altitude gym training comes to Dubai
DUBAI // Athletes seeking a competitive edge can now train at altitudes of up to 4,000 metres without leaving the emirate - or sea level.
The secret is a new gym at the Mina a'Salam hotel in Madinat Jumeirah, which simulates altitude by maintaining lower ambient pressures and oxygen levels than its outside surroundings.
Within a month of opening, it has already been used by trekkers training for the gruelling 6,000-metre climb of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.
And the British athlete Jane Westley, 34, winner of the short-course race at this year's Abu Dhabi triathlon, says the high-altitude centre helped her to a fifth-place finish at the world triathlon championships in Beijing this month.
She wanted to improve her endurance, and used the gym for low-intensity endurance training, stretching and cooling down, while maintaining higher heart rates than she would experience when training in regular conditions.
"I'd had the flu the week before the race and there's no way I'd have been able to come fifth without the high-altitude training," she said.
"It really helped with muscle recovery. When you went for your next workout, you felt fresh."
The gym allows athletes to acclimatise without suffering the effects of altitude sickness, which include headaches and nausea.
Over time spent at altitude, the body's bone marrow produces extra red blood cells to cope - and it is these that increase endurance.
Altitude training has been popular since the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City - elevation 2,240m - when it became clear that performance in endurance events suffered at altitude. The Swiss Olympic training camp in St Moritz - elevation 1,856m - is now used by athletes across a variety of disciplines.
As part of their preparations for the upcoming season, several Australian Football League teams - including Carlton - are sending players to facilities in Qatar and Arizona. The Australian Olympic swimming team are also training in altitude conditions at the Sydney Olympic park in preparation for next year's London Games.
"It's a massive benefit to be able to stay at home and do this training," said Zane Holt, the director of the new facility. "As well as the cost saving in air fares and accommodation, you can't intensively train at high altitude or else it will actually deteriorate your performance - but here you can do it and then go outside to do your normal training."
He has been surprised at the number of high-level athletes here, from triathletes to ultra-marathon runners. "I was introducing it more for the weight loss effects of high-altitude training as well as acclimatising people for things like Mount Kilimanjaro.
"You can burn 30 to 40 per cent more calories at altitude. I didn't realise what a hub Dubai is for elite athletes."
Noel Rossouw is a seasoned athlete with more than 20 years of competition experience. In July, the 53-year-old completed the Korean Triathlon and is now training for the Phuket Half Ironman in December, which consists of a 1.9 kilometre swim, a 90.1km cycle and a 21.1km run, before attempting the New Zealand Iron Man in March.
He knows only too well the hazards of travelling to altitude unaccustomed, having climbed Kilimanjaro.
"It really saps your energy. The first step up that mountain you can feel you're struggling for air," said the South African.
"I'd be interested to try the facility in preparation for one of my next events. They're both at sea level but I want to know if it helps endurance. It sounds like it should."
He fears, however, that at Dh6,000 for 12 supervised sessions of about 90 minutes each, the cost would be prohibitive for many.
"In the training world, most people run because it's an inexpensive sport, unlike an elitist sport like golf or cycling, so I don't know that this is affordable," he said.
Zack Taumafai, who owns KO Promotions, which trains and promotes boxers, kickboxers and muay thai martial artists, said he looked into investing in such a facility.
"The cost of setting it up is very expensive," he said.
"Unless you're a top athlete or training for a competition, it's a lot of money. If it's a one off you won't see the benefit so it takes time and investment."
Others are sceptical about the value of high-altitude training itself. Lee Johnson, a sports rehabilitation therapist at Up and Running in Dubai, says potential side-effects of excessive high-altitude training include decreasing bone mineral density, which can lead to osteoporosis.
He says its best use is for rehabilitation. "If you've got injured tissue, it will help the healing process and for injuries it's very beneficial. People think that because they're training harder, it's good training, but it's not so cut and dried."
While muscles will work more quickly and more effectively during training at high altitude, he said research by Middlesex University in England and the US space agency Nasa had found that the body readapts to its surroundings quickly, making the training of little value.
"Within two and a half hours, the red blood cells went back to normal, making the training a waste of time."