Altitude training: Swimming high to Rio

Morgan Bird

Tomorrow athlete in residence Morgan Bird, left, in training in Flagstaff, Arizona, where she benefits from the high altitude for her swimming.

If you have never been at altitude, it may be a tad bit difficult to adjust the first trip, just because it is harder to breathe than at sea level.

I have had the privilege of being selected to be a part of something called the “Rio Podium Project” from Swimming Canada, training at altitude with the national team.

What is altitude training, you ask? It includes travelling to Flagstaff, Arizona, for three weeks at a time, four times a year. There are usually around six athletes that come to train together, and Flagstaff is the perfect location because it is at 7,000 feet above sea level.

The purpose of altitude training is to do hypoxic (difficult) workouts to increase our hemoglobin and plasma concentration as well as EPO (erythropoietin), which is a hormone produced by the kidney that promotes the formation of red blood cells.

This in turn increases your oxygen levels. Once your oxygen levels increase and you go back home, it will require less effort to swim faster.

For example, let’s say a swimmer went to a swim meet before coming to altitude training and went 1 minute and 12 seconds for 100m free. After coming back from altitude, the idea is that the swimmer would be able to go 1 minute and 12 seconds again, without exerting as much effort. That is why we are also encouraged to go to a swim meet right after these altitude camps, in order to track the results.

The athletes also get a lot of one-on-one attention with the coaches and personalised training. A tonne of support staff – also known as your integrated support team (IST) – travel with us to ensure optimal performance. The IST includes physiologists, psychologists for mental support, massage therapists, as well as strength and conditioning coaches.

We do tonnes of tests both in and out of the water, as well as video analysis, to keep track of how we are doing. We are instructed to listen to our bodies. Depending on how we feel – such as if we are getting sick – the coaches will adjust our work load to guarantee a fast recovery.

Flagstaff is a popular place. Canada is not the only country that takes advantage of the benefits that altitude training gives us. Other countries also train here, and Team Canada has had the opportunity to meet some of the fastest elite athletes in the world.

At the end of each week, we travel “down” to Phoenix, where it is just over 1,000 feet above sea level, to complete a test set in order to see how fast we can swim. Considering that we have been training at altitude for an entire week before this, it is a nice breath of fresh air, and much easier to swim. We repeat this process three times.

Also at the end of each week, the swimmers get to look forward to a day off in order to recover properly. This is the day that the massage therapists come in, and we get to relax, catch up on school work and hang out with each other.

Needless to say, even though it is a tonne of hard work, it is also lots of fun.

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