So I (Mike) have now completed just over a week’s worth of hypoxic sessions on the Altium i10 device. I started last Sunday evening, and completed my fifth session last night (Monday evening). As trailed in our previous blog post announcing our collaboration with Altium, I’ll be doing a number of “before and after” tests on myself, over a month of using the device. As a reminder, the Altium i10 is a “personal hypoxic device” – i.e. it allows the user to simulate the effects of altitude, one of them being Hypoxia (or, a less then normal level of breathed oxygen) in a controlled manner, which has been proven to have benefits in adapting the body to better use what oxygen it does have available, during exertion. See here for a short video explaining Hypoxia, straight from the relevant wikipedia article: Moving on from ATP, Lactic Acid and cytoskeletons, I’ll tell you a bit about my first week in the virtual altiplano. First Impressions The Altium i10 is definitely a premium product. I suppose anyone buying that will know this, in that they will have parted with £499 (around €650) to get their hands on one, and are buying into a recurring cost of around £50 per 28 day cycle, in order to secure the CO2 scrubber cartridges, which need replacing every few sessions. All that said, this is the kind of product that is probably bought by those people who have already invested in the rest of the expensive upgrades available to cyclists – such as wheels, frames, etc. The Altium is in the “Rapha” end of the performance improvement market. And like Rapha, it doesn’t disappoint, certainly not aesthetically. Though it is early days, it seems to, like Rapha, be delivering on its technical promises too (see next section). It comes in a carrying case that would look just as at home handcuffed to the wrist of an international man of mystery, which, let’s face it, is how many cyclists like to think of themselves. The components of the device are set into foam slots within the aluminium case, allowing you to keep it all together in a single, portable case. These components are a first set of scrubber cartridges (below left), the Altium itself, a nose plug, a set of filter sponges, the Oximeter (below right – a fingertip device which measures pulse and SpO2 and transmits to a smartphone [optional], and instructions).
Next up was downloading the app onto my smartphone. This is not necessary, as the unit is self-sufficient, but it does add a level of interactivity to the training process, with Strava connectivity and a scoring system (AltiPoints), as well as providing a more data-rich experience, with better graphics, for the user. This was easily and quickly done via the Apple AppStore in my case, though it is also available for Android I am told.
My First Altium Sessions
Onto the session – what did I have to do? Well, not much, really. Following the instructions which came with the device, along with some advice from the guys at the Altium, I got the device set up for first time use by a first time user, by removing some of the filter sponges (newbies start with less), installing a scrubber cartridge, putting the mouthpiece on the device, and getting the Oximeter on my finger (which meant it automatically connected to the app on my phone via bluetooth). From there, the session, which was timed and recorded, and for which prompts were give to me by the Altium app, entailed breathing through the device, for 6 minutes on, then 4 minutes off, and repeating this two step sequence 5 times, for a total of an hour. So far, so good.
Where things get a bit more complicated, is that there is a qualitative aspect to the sessions – you can do this breathing better… or there is a right and wrong, really. You must aim to keep your SpO2 levels in the hypoxic zone (defined as below 92%, though Altium’s research shows no need to go below 78%) for as long as possible, and this takes some effort. The effort is not completely physical. It is more like taking a new bike out for a ride; you need to understand how far you can tilt it around bends safely, how to get the best of it, and what its limits are. It is a “getting to know you process”. What happens as you use the Altium, is as follows. When you breathe into the device, it “scrubs” (or removes) the CO2 from your exhalations. This CO2 stays in the device, so that as you then inhale from the device, the air you breathe is recirculated air, which is now lower in oxygen, than the air outside the device. This is analogous to what would happen at altitude, and the phone app constantly shows you your theoretical altitude. Five sessions in I still find it amazing that I can “be” at 3000m within a minute of sitting on the sofa, when I will never forget the 2 weeks it took my to get that high in the Himalaya, the first time I went to Nepal some 20 years ago, and how once there I had to adapt for 2 days before heading further up.
In order to stay in the Hypoxic zone, and maintain that “altitude”, I need to regulate my breathing. I am still finding my way, and getting used to how this works. It is a question of the depth of one’s breath, and how one mixes clean air into one’s breath occasionally. It can be tricky to avoid going into a series of “ups and downs”, in and out of the zone, I have found. If I can see myself heading below of 78%, there is a risk of taking too many breaths of clean air, which fires me right out of the zone (above 92%) again. I tried to think about my best session so far (Session 2), and work out what was particular to that session. Well, for one, that day’s cycling training was light (relatively speaking), and I had done it early in the morning, whilst the Altium session was done last thing before bed. I have since found that it is much harder to get my breathing right the closer the session is to other training. So there is something to be said for an intelligent slotting-in of Altium sessions into one’s training programme. Like anything in a training programme, if you do it right, and at the right time, you will see more benefit.
I also found that there is a qualitative difference in the reaction times of the device, depending on how new the CO2 scrubber installed is. I have found myself able to stay in the Hypoxic zone more consistently, without the aforementioned “ups and downs”, with a scrubber on its second use, compared to a fresh one. Post-session, there is a bit of work to do. Like stretching after cycling, which is too often ignored, one has to dismantle the Altium and give it a wash. Let’s face it, you’ve had your mouth on it, and breathed (and occasionally drooled admittedly) in and out of it for an hour – so it has to be scrubbed up before next use! It certainly will make your dish drying rack look a bit more “endurance lab chic”. This is easy enough, and its not like you’re smashed after the session, so isn’t much of a hassle. And hey, it’s not just a one way street – this thing is supposed to be giving you performance improvements in exchange, right? Let’s look at that. Testing Performance Whilst I am only 9 days in (5 sessions), we might as well begin to look at the testing protocol I have put in place, and seeing what has come up this week. I will be doing a road test, on a segment, which is climb near the Halo Cycling Project training base, called Santa Pellaia. This goes over the Gavarres mountain range, which separates our part of Girona province, from the city of Girona. Here is the church a the top, with views to La Bisbal and the coast beyond. I rode the climb, at a simulated race pace, just before the first session on the Altium i10. Strava details for the ride are below: You can view the Santa Pellaia segment details and leaderboard here. My ride up and over it, was a Personal Best, at 15 minutes and 46 seconds, undertaken five days before I started the Altium i10 sessions. Wind was negligible, and the bike I rode was my Cervélo S5, which I will use consistently throughout the 28 day cycle, for proper comparison. Interestingly, on the same bike and in similar conditions, I rode up Santa Pellaia yesterday (5 sessions in), and shaved a whole 32 seconds off of that Personal Best, which was only 13 days old… Not to mention getting a PB on every other climb along the ride! I will also be looking at my FTP (Functional Threshold Power) before and after the 28 day cycle. So to get it on the record here, I took it just before the first session, using standard British Cycling protocol (which you can see here). I had an FTP of 248 watts. I will also be looking at VO2 max. In the absence of a sports science lab, I am using the new Garmin 520’s VO2 max estimator, which Garmin have developed, with the help of the Cooper Institute, and included in a recent software update for a few of their devices. Accuracy improves as you increase the amount of time spent above 70% of your max heart rate in a session. My VO2 max according to the garmin unit before starting the Altium i10 sessions was 58. For the record, after this first block of 5 sessions, it now sits at 60. My Garmin has regularly been alerting me of this fact after rides over the last week or so. I have to plead ignorance to both the science behind the accuracy of such tests on a Garmin, or even whether a 2 point improvement is of any statistical significance, but hey, at least it isn’t going down! The final test will be a real race-day ride up another segment. On Tuesday June 7th, I will ride the hill climb time trial in the Girona Gran Fondo, and see if I can beat my time at last year’s race, which occurred at the same time of year, at the same point in my training programme. Fingers crossed! Keep reading here to see how that goes.