Living the high life in Limerick


The National Altitude Training Centre offers athletes the chance to breathe mountain air

IT MIGHT look like any other house from the outside, but the occupants of No 56 Kilmurry Village are living the high life.

Not only are they an elite bunch, representing their country on a world stage, but they’re even breathing different air to us. Welcome to Ireland’s first high altitude house.

Located on the outskirts of the University of Limerick, this seven-bedroom house has the capacity to simulate altitudes close to that of Kilimanjaro. Home to the likes of Irish Olympians race walker Colin Griffin and triathlete Gavin Noble prior to their London 2012 campaigns, the boon for sporty residents is that they can reap the benefits of high altitude training even as they sleep.

“We wanted to keep it as homely as possible,” says Rachel Turner, a PhD student at UL who is also the National Altitude Training Centre co-ordinator. But what might look like and feel like a regular residence is far from it.

A bespoke filtration system sucks air in from the outside and makes it hypoxic, reducing levels of oxygen. This air is then pumped around the house with athletes able to adjust oxygen levels to match their training needs.

UK-based company The Altitude Centre with which Turner has worked on assignments with the England football team and the England and Harlequins rugby teams installed the system. Plassey Campus Centre is the project’s main sponsor.

But why is altitude so beneficial to athletes?

“Training at altitude allows altitude naive individuals to increase their red blood cell capacity and increase their haemoglobin and therefore emulate some of the physiological adaptations that we see in altitude natives such as Kenyan runners,” explains Turner.

“Of course if you have more red blood cells and more haemoglobin, the idea is that you can transport more oxygen around the body. You can see how this would be useful for an athlete.”

So while watching TV, cooking dinner and sleeping, residents of the Limerick house can be on top of the world, stepping into the hallway or using the bathroom, brings them back to terra firma.

“If someone is having an issue with the altitude, they can literally step out of their room and they are in a normal environment,” explains Turner.

While travelling to “live high, train high” altitude camps has long been part of elite sport, those staying at Kilmurry can live high and train low.

“It’s popular for athletes to use the live high, train high model and in the natural environment they don’t have much choice. But what we’ve found is that there is more potential for immuno-suppression there.”

By living high from 5pm to 9am and then hitting UL’s track or pool for normal training, athletes not only avoid the cost and time of travel, but there’s also less chance of them over-taxing their systems as can happen when living and training at altitude.

While the house can simulate heights of 5,000 metres (Kilimanjaro is just below 6,000 metres), the highest setting used by Kilmurry’s residents is 3,600 metres, says Turner.

“It’s not the case that the higher you go the better, it’s trying to find the optimal level for each athlete.”

Athletes stay from between two to seven weeks and are carefully monitored throughout.

“There can be some reports of sleep disturbance . . . and you have to be conscious that the athletes are not anaemic or are even close to anaemic as they won’t be able to accrue the full benefits,” she says.

lnternational race walker Colin Griffin, a long-time advocate of the benefits of altitude training, led the development of the house, approaching UL professor of sport and exercise Phil Jakeman with the idea in 2009.

He credits the house with helping to get him to the Olympics.

“I spent four weeks there before the World Cup event in May where I got my Olympic qualifying time, so I benefited from it greatly.”

He sees real benefits to living high and training low. “You can go out and do your training at the same volume and intensity as you normally would, as opposed to at an altitude training camp up in the mountains, you’ve got to adjust your training.

“So I go abroad less now for altitude training and when I come back, I can maintain those benefits by staying in the house.”

Griffin typically spends his first days in the house at 2,500 metres before rising to 3,500 metres.

“You definitely notice the reduction in oxygen, but it’s a normal house, you can watch TV, work on your laptop and sleep while still getting your altitude exposure the same as you would up in the high mountains.”

Triathlete Gavin Noble who usually heads to France and Spain for altitude, stayed in the house for six weeks prior to the Olympics.

“When you are living at the top of a mountain, it’s very difficult to do fast sessions and to do very hard sessions because there is a lack of oxygen – you’re doing a lot of long and slow stuff, which in race season you don’t really want to be doing. You want to maintain your speed and your power and that’s the benefit of Limerick. You can live and sleep as if you are up the mountain but just walk out the door and you’re at sea level.”

Noble heads back to the house before Christmas to kick-start winter training.

“It’s nice to be in that environment where you can just focus on training. You’ve everything right there so it’s just amazing.”