Human Testing: How Altitude Affects Performance

See triathletes Angela Naeth and Jesse Thomas undergo extreme testing to maximize human performance.
By Scott Hart

How can we make a human move faster from Point A to Point B? 

This is precisely what the Red Bull High Performance Division seeks to understand in its quest to improve athletic performance using science. The Project Endurance series showcases this investigation. This episode of Project Endurance is all about muscles.

More: Check out Project Endurance Parts 1 and 2 in "Related Stories" below

The purpose of Red Bull Project Endurance Version 3.0 was to investigate how muscle fibers — both slow and fast twitch — and even the brain are impacted by altitude to provide insights and potentially new training methodologies.

As part of the project, the athletes would wake up and be studied at sea level in Death Valley, California, and then immediately flown to Mammoth Mountain to repeat the tests at high altitude.

The endurance athletes, including triathletes Angela Neath and Jesse Thomas, endured endless tests both in lab settings and outside in the field. Scientists poked and prodded, measuring oxygen in their blood and muscles, while also collecting data about the athlete's pedalling cadence and power wattage outputs — and, oh yeah, also measuring how the brain was impacting the athlete's performance and numerous other markers.

To get the lowdown on the whole scientific process from the athlete's perspective, we spoke with Naeth to get her take — read below to learn more. Have you ever participated in a "lab rat"-style project like this?

Angela Naeth: No, this was my first time and I absolutely loved it. We had electrodes all over us — I had a blast! Definitely hope it isn't my last.

What were your preconceived notions before day one?

They didn't explain much to us, and what we'd be testing, until the first day. So I was really openminded when I arrived.

One of the two test parameters was altitude — what has been your athletic experience of performing at low versus high altitude?

I feel when I go to [high] altitude for a short period, it is extremely hard on the aerobic system to go at the same effort levels — in terms of power [wattage output]. But if you go by heart rate, it's a lot easier. I used to live in Boulder [at 5,430 feet] in the summer and struggled at altitude coming back and forth for races that were back-to-back weekends. Between a seven-to-10-day window, I found it really hard to perform. If I were to workout within the 72 hours from dropping from elevation, I would see the most benefit.

Tell us more about the cadence testing on the bike.

I always tend to find an even keel cadence at 80 to 85 [rpm]. So when we were doing the test and had to take it up to 95+, it was extremely hard on the body. I haven't really worked on trying to keep that high of a cadence for very long. In terms of power at the higher cadence, it seemed lower, as well.

How is a low cadence beneficial in triathlon?

If you can keep a lower cadence — and still maintain high power and a low heart rate — it can be hugely benefically when you transfer over to the run. You're essentially not overusing your heart at any time. You're much lower in the heart rate zone, so when you get off the bike and run, you can raise that heart rate up and be able to run farther and faster because you have that ability. I think a lot of competitors overextend themselves on the bike — they don't really understand what cadence or heart rate they should use. 

For more exclusive triathlon stories, videos and photos, visit the official Red Bull triathlon page.  

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