BRENDAN O’BRIEN: Going the extra mile at altitude

Thirteen minutes. Tops.

It seemed at first to be a pathetic, embarrassing effort even with the dregs of a two-hour drive still to flush from the legs, but John Galvin’s knowing nod and comforting words from across the gym served as a soothing balm to a battered ego and a breathless body.

“I lasted more or less the same time when I did my first session,” said the Limerick midfielder as he swept gracefully, forward and back, on the rowing machine within the airtight environs of the Altitude Gym on Limerick’s Ballysimon Road.

Galvin has come to know this chamber well by now. Two cruciate knee injuries in consecutive seasons have necessitated a pair of intensive rehabs, with the latter stages of each involving numerous sessions in this one-of-its-kind complex under the watchful eye of Andrew O’Neill, one of the sports performances coaches at the centre and is also Limerick’s strength and conditioning man.

O’Neill, along with his colleague Darragh Droog put this guinea pig through his paces with a programme involving 30-second speed intervals on the treadmill at regularly increasing paces and all at a simulated altitude of around 3,200 metres above sea level. That’s roughly equivalent to 10,500ft. Thinking of it like that doesn’t make 13 minutes seem all that bad.

Both instructors explained the science at some length later on but it was, in all honestly, a blur of jargon. Words like EPO and creatine — both of which are naturally produced by the body — as well as mitochondria, ATP, and glycogen litter the conversation but the basic principles as to why this form of training is gaining a following in GAA and wider sporting circles isn’t hard to grasp.

“As we are sitting here there is 21% oxygen in the air that we breath so any time you exercise outside the Altitude Gym you are training at 21% oxygen,” Droog says at one point. “So, when we go into the gym here we have the ability to control the oxygen level that is in the room.

“The best physical adaptation occurs between 2,600m to 3,000m above sea level. A lot of the European runners would go to somewhere like the Sierra Nevada in Spain. That’s about 3,000m. We vary the class depending on whether we have elite athletes or general public. You were running at the top end with about 14% oxygen.”

Altitude training has been en vogue for half a century now but the premise that the concept can be brought down to ground zero can lead to confusion, such as the time a local radio presenter started off an interview with Droog by asking for reassurance that he wouldn’t die from partaking.

Elite athletes tend to be more clued-in. Its use is widespread in the NBA and the English Premiership and O’Neill and Droog have visited a handful of clubs such as Aston Villa who were among the first advocates. Spurs’ Jermaine Defoe is said to be a particular fan.

Up to now, most users have had to make do with a mask or a room no larger than a phone booth but the Altitude Gym in Limerick, the only one of its kind in Ireland, is a larger operation that caters for groups of athletes, with the St Senan’s footballers from Kilkee and some Munster rugby players among the frequent visitors.

It’s a remarkably unimposing structure: a room about the size of a fairly big dressing-room with a set of industrial-looking pipes and boxes stacked overhead to regulate the conditions and accessed via a simple sliding door that creates an airtight seal.

Iarla Tannian, the Galway hurler, has been another to cotton on to its benefits. The Ardrahan midfielder made several visits in the four weeks between the county’s All-Ireland semi-final defeat of Cork and the drawn final against Kilkenny in a bid to go the extra mile.

His performance in that stalemate was received with acclaim. Named man of the match for his effort, he told O’Neill and Droog afterwards he felt like there was at least another 15 equally strong minutes in him by the time Barry Kelly called for the sliotar at the end.

That, in a nutshell, is the essence of altitude training: train harder in a tougher environment and your body generates more red blood cells which in turn carry more oxygen and you will be able to go stronger for longer when it comes to performing at a regular altitude.

“The fact is you are stressing your body to a point where it is asking itself ‘right, how do I adapt to this?’,” O’Neill explains. “At normal altitude then your body is thinking, ‘well, I have been under this stress before and now I can last longer’.”

See? No science required.


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