Room helps athletes 'get high'

Room helps athletes 'get high'
PHOTO: The Straits Times

It looks like a regular living room at first glance - parquet floor, warm lighting, a 60-inch television with a Nintendo Wii gaming console, joined to an open kitchen well-stocked with food.

Singapore canoeist Suzanne Seah trudges to the kitchen to hunt for food, before sitting down on a wall-mounted sofa.

But this is not Seah's home, and a touch-screen monitor on the wall - which displays the room's oxygen level (15.6 per cent) and altitude (2,543m) - gives the game away.

The SEA Games women's K2 500m gold medallist, along with 12 of her team-mates, are in the Singapore Sports Institute's (SSI) altitude room, a chamber which simulates a high-altitude environment using compressors.

They are the first batch of athletes to use the chamber, which opened earlier this month and can be adjusted to a maximum altitude of 5,000m.

The team's stay started on Oct 7, and will end on Nov 1 when they head to Palembang for the Asian Canoe Sprint Championships, which serves as a qualifier for next year's Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

They typically spend 10 to 12 hours in the room daily, in between training three to four times a day. In fact, most spend their time in the room outside of work or school.

Said Seah, 25: "So far it's been pretty good for me, although some of my team-mates said they had difficulty sleeping initially.

"Training wise, I can't say for sure it's down to the altitude house, but it seems much easier to hold top speed for a longer time, especially during the longer sets that we do."

Dr Frankie Tan, head of the SSI's Sports Science Centre, said: "We try to make the place more conducive (for living), so it's easier to live here for a longer duration."

Living in the house while training at the nearby Kallang Water Sports Centre allows the athletes to adopt a "live-high, train-low" principle, which means that the athletes' training programme will not be disrupted.

Dr Tan, who is also the SSI's head and senior psychologist, said this set-up is less disruptive compared to living and training at high altitude. Athletes who train at high altitude sometimes decrease their workload at the start to acclimatise to the thinner air.

High-altitude training is not a novel concept.

Athletes, mostly marathon runners, flock to the High Altitude Training Centre located 2,400m above sea level in Iten, Kenya, to gear up for races.

Swimmer Michael Phelps slept in a high-altitude chamber in his home for more than a year before the Olympics in 2012. He won four golds and two silvers in London.

Singapore marathoners Soh Rui Yong and Mok Ying Ren have also trained at high-altitude camps in the United States as they bid to qualify for Rio.

Studies show that the benefits of such training include improved delivery of oxygen to the muscles, reduced muscle fatigue, shorter recovery time and greater endurance.

Dr Tan said: "It's more for long-distance athletes, whose races last longer than 30 seconds. We monitor the athletes closely to track the effects.

"The benefit usually wears off after two to three weeks."

But he believes Singapore is the first country in South-east Asia to boast an altitude room, although Malaysia has enquired about setting up something similar.

An environmental chamber, whose altitude can also go up to 5,000m, is also being built next to the altitude room, and provides athletes with a space to train in.

The high-tech facility has already attracted interest from athletes both at home and abroad.

A group of six German swimmers have signed up to use it next March while they train here with the Singapore team, while Singapore cyclist Dinah Chan is expected to use the altitude room in December to prepare for the Asian Cycling Championships in Japan next year.

Dr Tan declined to reveal the cost of the whole set-up, but said: "In the long run, it's cheaper than sending large groups of athletes overseas.

"High-performance sport is not cheap. But it's about how you utilise this."

This article was first published on October 22, 2015.
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