Many youth coaches are parent volunteers looking to help their children and other kids learn a sport and stay fit and healthy. Too often they fall back on the same tired drills that they themselves used when they were youth athletes. With that in mind, Jeremy Frisch set out to develop an updated basic framework that coaches can use to provide athletic development training during youth practice sessions.
Consumer-friendly and professional hypoxic chambers are now a normal part of endurance development and team sport conditioning. Recently, the fitness industry has become a customer of hypoxic chambers, as the rapid adaptations that altitude simulators provide is commercially appealing.
In this buyer’s guide, we review the details of investing in altitude chambers and cover the necessary terminology, science, and practical considerations so coaches and high performance staff will have the necessary information to get started. The benefits are simple: improved aerobic capacity from specific hematological adaptations that improve athlete stamina. Most of the research supports what we can do with altitude tents and indoor hypoxic chambers, but the magnitude is still unknown when addressing their real-world impact on athlete careers versus short studies. The final word on how to use the technology will be up to the sport scientists and coaches, but for now the use of altitude tents has merit.
What Is a Hypoxic Chamber?
A hypoxic chamber is an area of any size that simulates altitude conditions, and applications range from specialized training rooms to bed tents that allow athletes to sleep with the physiological conditions found at higher elevations. Don’t confuse hypoxic chambers with hyperbaric chambers, or systems that increase the oxygen content of the local environment. Hypoxic conditions are researched to help intensify the adaptation process, but the effects relate highly to the entire training program and lifestyle of the athlete. While the systems are mainly for enhancing athlete performance, some treatments are for non-athlete use, such as wellness centers and rehabilitation clinics.Don’t confuse hypoxic chambers with hyperbaric chambers. Click To Tweet
There are three categories of equipment currently available: small sleep space areas, direct breathing devices, and training room solutions. All three systems can help an array of athletes, ranging from elite endurance athletes to senior populations. The popularity of hypoxic chambers is growing in Europe, and they are now available in the U.S. for fitness and performance demands. Hypoxic chambers are not like gas analyzers or commercial restricted breathing masks, as oxygen utilization and restricted breathing are not true hypoxic technologies.
Single user breathing devices are systems that replicate altitude by directly connecting the individual athlete to an inhalation stimulus similar to elevation. The athlete can sleep or train with the system, and the surrounding area maintains normal conditions. Like a CPAP machine, but clearly designed to stress the athlete incrementally instead of restore breathing, the technology is safe and effective.
Sleeping areas are commercially available, and due to their size and the user experience, they are popular with recreational athletes and team sports. Because of the invasiveness to sleep, specifically the social barriers, the market isn’t close to saturation in the space. Hypoxic sleeping devices resemble tents, and are often referred to as altitude tents to convey the concept of the appearance and function of the solution. Some systems are reportedly uncomfortable to sleep in because the temperature can be slightly warmer than ideal conditions, so decreasing the bedroom’s temperature is the common adjustment.
Training zones require specialized construction of the room to ensure the space is literally airtight. Sizes range from small single training areas that athletes can cycle in individually all the way to team-sized environments. In addition to an airtight area with unique entryways, altitude generators are required to alter the internal environment and replicate elevation. Training areas with hypoxic technology are very popular with athletes in team sport. While most in team sports are not interested in sleeping high artificially, all athletes use the training chambers.
How Does a Hypoxic Chamber Work?
A hypoxic chamber is an artificial environment solution that senses the ambient conditions of the local area and has the ability to distort the oxygen profile, thus simulating altitude. The equipment makes calculations that increase or decrease the simulation with a high level of accuracy. In summary, a hypoxic chamber fools the body into believing the athlete is at elevation.
Similar to an air compressor, the generators are about the size of a washer and dryer, and sometimes larger than full-size refrigerators depending on the amount of air treated. Due to the electrical energy required to modify large spaces, the temperature of the generators used to be an issue in confined spaces. It’s important that coaches and others involved recognize that air flow is purposely restricted in hypoxic chambers, so air conditioning and air filtering is sometimes a challenge.In summary, a hypoxic chamber fools the body into believing the athlete is at elevation. Click To Tweet
Small systems use similar technology, but tents and other small-space solutions are not as powerful because they use fewer cubic liters than full room chambers for teams and large groups. Mask solutions are similar, meaning they utilize the same engineering but on a far smaller scale. Partial pressure of tents and other systems is not modified by technology, therefore the main difference with air at sea level is its nitrogen and oxygen ratio.
What Does the Science Say About Hypoxic Training?
The physiology of simulated altitude is important because athletes who artificially live high but train at sea level improve their tolerance and adaptations, but do not fully prepare for the rigors of altitude. Conversely, those who train in hypoxic conditions with short intervals also limit their exposure to altitude, as it requires a combination of living and training to fully capture the absolute benefits of elevation to the body. Team training is also usually limited to cross-training or non-specific conditioning, so the transfer and replication of game conditions are not interchangeable. The amount of general training that transfers at sea level is conflicting, but added conditioning at altitude or simulated altitude does have a stronger influence on adaptations specific to aerobic performance.
Nearly all of the improvements in aerobic capacity will come from the mitochondrial, hematological, and cardiopulmonary adaptations. Concurrent training methods that incorporate both power and endurance should be enough to preserve an athlete’s ability to produce power, and extend the aerobic capacity to repeat it and conserve those capabilities. The rate of decay—meaning how quickly the adaptations occur—is highly dependent on a myriad of factors, mainly training, genetics, diet, and recovery.
Genetic factors are a real component in the success of athletes, as some athletes don’t seem equipped to harness the simulated altitude. Conversely, some athletes are high responders due to their genetic profile. Other circumstances make hypoxic training invaluable, such as immobile athletes after surgery or illness. Based on the research, it’s not clear who makes an ideal candidate for altitude training, so determining the athletes who are best fit to use altitude simulation with hypoxic rooms and tents is a difficult process.
Standard Features and User Experience
Most, if not all, of the systems available have a limited warranty for conventional use. Some chamber systems have maintenance packages or agreements that minimize expenses, and nearly all of them have been tested for safety and effectiveness. Many of the features are universal, meaning the market is not dramatically different, just similar enough that comparisons are not necessary outside of basic information on offerings and prices.
We don’t intend to oversimplify, but hypoxic chambers are very similar to air conditioning units, as they display simple environmental data and provide a solution to change the conditions accordingly. As for the private or individual products, each system has ergonomics and design differences that are small but reliable for purchasing, such as workflow and simplicity. Unlike equipment in our other buyer’s guides, individual key features are not the primary selling point.
What Options Exist with Hypoxic Technology (Rooms, Tents, Face Masks)?
There are a handful of players in the space and most of the companies support all of the markets, ranging from serious weekend warrior to professional institutions. We list the five companies that lead the industry for hypoxic chambers, tents, and individual systems. While the choice of options is narrow, each company’s experience should give you confidence that they’ll still be around in a few years, despite the fact that the sports technology market can be so volatile.
As one of the leaders internationally, Hypoxico supports all levels and types of athletes. Hypoxico offers a complete line of altitude training solutions, ranging from clinical solo systems all the way to large indoor training chambers. The company has headquarters in New York City, as well as sales support in Europe. Hypoxico has an impressive client list domestically and internationally, including countless Olympic organizations and individual professional sports teams. With their expansion into the wellness and rehabilitation market, the company is poised to have strong sales and adoption rates into 2019 and beyond.
This Massachusetts company offers two solutions, and they’re very popular in the prosumer market. Their systems are very inexpensive and can be used for sleeping or training directly. While Higher Peak doesn’t provide training rooms or chambers, their product is fine for groups if multiple systems are purchased. Since it is not portable, athletes need to use a treadmill, rower, or bike ergometer for conditioning. The company also sells all the necessary accessories including used generators, and has had a lot of success in the running community as well as other endurance sports. Several world-class athletes have utilized their sleeping system, named Snowcap, for home use.
Colorado Altitude Training
A leader for over a decade, this Denver company provides sleep and exercise chambers for military and lifestyle needs, sport, and research purposes. The company placed efforts on equine sport, but due to the limited market and complications of horse racing, they no longer appear to be active in that space. Colorado Altitude Training has an aviation system as well. It’s currently unknown how much traction the company has with their product line, as the website appears dated, but they have had a lot of clients in the past.
Welltech Instrument Company, Ltd.
Welltech is a Hong Kong company specializing in environmental conditions, including wind, heat, and cold temperatures. While their clients seem to only be located in the Pacific (Asia), they are an international company. In addition to their Athletic Environment Chamber, Welltech provides other solutions unrelated to sports performance. The company doesn’t provide any individual products such as tents or solo training devices. In addition to the temperature conditions, their hypoxic chamber has features that control humidity. Currently, Welltech has low visibility in the U.S. market, but based on their Athletic Environment Chamber, they will likely reach new clients abroad in the near future.
Sporting Edge UK
This U.K. company provides all three altitude training solutions for athletes (room, tent, mask) and is a leader in design and education. Most of Sporting Edge’s clients are in the U.K., and they have had major success with British Olympic sport. Their reach is not as potent outside of the U.K., but due to their rich history in sport, the company has the potential to grow in North America. Their individual systems are affordable, and their environmental chambers are impressive—they have been used in research for temperature, humidity, and altitude simulation. With clients at the universities, the company has plenty of case studies to demonstrate how their technology works with athletes and organizations.
There are many companies with hypoxic training offerings in the market, making renting or session use optional for teams and athletes. At first this may seem counterproductive for those that could buy a solution, but the reality is many fans of altitude training are looking for rentals or short-term use. As the fitness market expands, expect more session use offerings in the future.
Innovation is likely to come from pricing, education in application, and ergonomics of small individual systems. In the future, we will see more product partnerships between gas analyzers, biomarker companies, cardiopulmonary systems, and other physical monitoring tools such as muscle oxygenation tools. Most of the current innovation comes from the smaller portable systems for clinicians who work with populations that need rejuvenation and rehabilitation.
Limitations of Altitude Tents and Other Systems
The most important things to consider with attitude simulators are the length and sequence of training to properly take advantage of the technology. If an athlete is unable to fully commit to the duration and/or training intensity, the time and money invested will likely be wasted. Additionally, the stress of the systems places an enormous strain on the body, so they require greater monitoring in order to benefit the athlete. Too much or improper use of hypoxic systems can impair recovery and even diminish performance if prescribed without guidance. It’s recommended that you leverage highly educated coaches and/or the assistance of a sport science team when employing hypoxic chamber training.To properly use the technology, consider the length & sequence of training with attitude simulators. Click To Tweet
Cost is another factor that limits the use of training chambers, as the full price of a system can be enormous and reach near four- to five-figure price tags with advanced designs. Tents are obviously less demanding, but enterprise costs of team orders are also taxing on budgets. Facilities and organizations should also consider the maintenance of the equipment and the long-term costs of sustaining the function of the chambers and individual systems.
Closing Thoughts on the Hypoxic System Market
Elite endurance athletes or those who need specific enhancement to red blood cells will likely need to embrace the technology for extended or even short periods of time. The available systems are an investment, so we recommend the careful review of expectations and budgeting realities like replacement strategies.Coaches and athletes should consider hypoxic chambers a way to enhance performance. Click To Tweet
Many athletes in endurance will use hypoxic chambers to train or live in to complement training camps or when they are competing, if needed. The market is expected to grow slightly, as legal advantages are always covered in sport, but due to the limitations of convenience and price, we don’t forecast that the market will have exponential growth. Coaches and athletes should consider hypoxic chambers a way to enhance performance, and choose an appropriate solution that fits their situational needs.