The theory is simple: when more oxygen is delivered to working muscles, the body can metabolize more fuel and perform more intense aerobic work. The traditional way to do this is to train; the body adapts to the stress of exercise by expanding its network of capillaries and its volume of oxygen-rich red blood cells, called the hematocrit. Another method is to take performance-enhancing drugs to artificially increase the hematocrit. But these drugs are banned and increase the risk of stroke and heart attack.
A safer method is to live at high altitude. When exposed to thin air, the body naturally increases its hematocrit, so athletes who train at high altitude can have an enormous advantage over athletes who don’t. For those of us not living in Colorado, there is the altitude simulator, which pumps oxygen-thinned air into an enclosed area, tricking the body into thinking it’s at altitude.
Does it work? I tested the MAG-10 Mountain Air Generator by Higher Peak, LLC, to find out.
It arrived in two enormous boxes; one containing the generator, which looked like a humidifier on steroids, and the other containing a tangle of hoses, PVC pipes, and plastic sheeting. When set up, one hose led from the generator through a pocket-sized digital oxygen monitor and an inflated bag, and a second hose led from the bag to either a face mask, or a small tent, called a snowcap, which covers a user’s head and shoulders in bed.
The User’s Guide explained that the MAG-10 could reduce the percentage of oxygen in the air from about 20.9%, which is sea level, to 9.6%, found at 20,400 feet. Charts showed the various air-flow and oxygen mix settings, and an 8-week schedule recommended starting at 5,000 feet and progressing to 13,000 feet.
There was also a list of safety instructions and warnings. People with conditions such as asthma, diabetes, obesity, and pregnancy, were urged to not use the MAG-10. Users were also warned that they might experience dizziness, nausea, headaches, and other symptoms of altitude sickness. But it was warning no. 13 that got my attention: “Use of this device might have a negative effect on your marriage or relationships. Don’t say you haven’t been warned. Good luck.”
When switched on, the unit hummed and began to breathe, sucking air in and out like a patient in ICU. Heeding warning no. 13, I pushed the generator as far from the bed as possible, and used the face mask, hoping that even though it made me look ridiculous, it wouldn’t be a threat to my marriage. But I found it uncomfortable, and in the middle of the night I ripped it off and flung it across the room.
Luckily, my wife was also intrigued by the MAG-10, so she didn’t object to setting up the snowcap on our bed, since it was big enough for two. We followed the training chart, but didn’t feel anything. We actually would have felt better about it if we had felt worse, since we would have known that something was happening. We cranked up the settings over the next few weeks, taking us up to the equivalent of 12,000 feet. Still, we felt nothing, although my breathing might have gotten a bit labored.
I ran several races after I started using the MAG-10, and I have to admit that I ran them well. Since the effects of altitude simulation aren’t usually felt for several months, I can’t say whether this is coincidence or not, but I’m willing to keep an open mind about it. My wife, however, is over it, and I have to admit that it’s starting to get on my nerves, too.
So does it work? Maybe. But is this a sustainable lifestyle? Not a chance!