10/02/05 Boulder company's altitude training systems target athletes seeking an edge

Pro cyclists Chris and Kimberly Baldwin live in Boulder at 5,400 feet above sea level. Yet most nights, they sleep at 10,000 feet or higher, thanks to an altitude tent system designed by Boulder-based Colorado Altitude Training. Earlier this year, the couple added high-altitude sleeping to their training program. They enclosed their bed with a clear vinyl, cube-shaped tent and installed an air unit that simulates altitudes up to 12,000 feet.

With the flip of a switch, they can reduce the tent's oxygen content and replicate the lower oxygen levels experienced at high altitudes.

For decades, professional athletes have challenged their bodies' aerobic abilities by training at high altitude. Traditionally, they would temporarily move to higher altitudes. Former Olympic cyclist Shaun Wallace, for example, started altitude training in 1984 by relocating for a month at a time from his home in California to Colorado Springs. Wallace's frustration with the inconvenience and expense grew over the years and inspired him to eventually design his own rudimentary tent in 1995.

Over the past decade, however, more advanced altitude simulation systems have increased the accessibility of altitude training. At the forefront of this growing market: Colorado Altitude Training, or CAT. CAT produces a series of altitude simulation devices, including portable tents, walk-in tents, room conversion systems and customized systems for dormitories, exercise rooms or other facilities.

CAT provides altitude training systems to professional athletes and a variety of organizations, including the Nike Elite Distance Running Team, the Canadian National Triathlon Training Centre, the T-Mobile Pro Cycling Team and the U.S. Speed Skating Tommy G. Thompson Youth Center. Since 1998, Wallace has worked with CAT on product development and used the company's products for his altitude training. After years of using a tent, he installed a room conversion system in his bedroom earlier this year. "It's great," he said. "The equipment is out of the way. You don't hear it or see it. There's just a little thermostat-like device." While the units differ in size for each product, they use the same technology, duplicating the lower oxygen found at high altitude by separating oxygen and nitrogen molecules, the two primary components of air.

By taking out some of the oxygen molecules, the unit produces a stream of air at 13 percent to 14 percent oxygen level as opposed to the 21 percent found in normal air.

This process creates the same physiological effects of high altitude, said Larry Kutt, president and founder of CAT.

For years, Kutt watched athletes, like Wallace, develop makeshift altitude devices or suffer the hassle of relocating to high-altitude areas. Inspired by his endeavors as a cyclist and climber, he began reading the research and decided to make altitude training his business. In 1997, he started CAT with one product, a hypobaric chamber, which reduced air pressure to the same levels as high altitude. Early on, Kutt pulled together an advisory board of altitude researchers, sports physiologists and physicians to ensure consistency with the latest scientific findings. With the board's guidance, the company adapted its original thinking and discontinued the air pressure chamber to manufacture products that simulate high altitude more comfortably by reducing oxygen rather than air pressure. He founded the company on the principle of "live high, train low," a concept developed by Ben Levine and Jim Stray-Gundersen, two doctors and independent researchers. According to this approach, athletes can achieve the greatest performance benefits by spending several hours a day at high altitude rather than training consistently at high altitude. Ideally, athletes should live in a geographic area where they can train at sea level and spend several hours at high altitude. Because few geographic locations offer such conditions, CAT developed its products to provide a convenient method for living high and training low, Kutt said. Research indicates that the body compensates for the thin air at high altitude by improving its ability to carry oxygen in the blood, specifically by producing more red blood cells. This process improves the body's abilities to move faster and exert energy. "There's no doubt it has helped my performance," Wallace said. "My times are quicker, and my recovery after taking on a big hill is much faster." For Chris Baldwin, sleeping in high altitude conditions provides a subtle performance boost. He and his wife use their system intermittently while training, and then every night for three weeks prior to big events. "You don't feel like Superman," said Baldwin, who rides professionally for the Navigators Insurance Cycling Team. "But you feel it, and it's effective." Some athletes view this subtle edge as a form of cheating. With prices ranging from $5,845 to $7,700 for portable altitude tents, not every athlete can afford such technology. For up-and-coming athletes with no sponsorship, this financial hurdle poses a disadvantage, according to various online and industry reports. "If altitude training is cheating, it means that there has to be an official altitude for athletes to train and reside at," Kutt said. "And that doesn't make any sense."