There are many benefits of living and/or training at high altitude. Most of us have probably heard of athletes that “live high, train low”, or some variant of that model, to increase red blood cell concentration and improve performance. Additionally, populations that live at altitude generally have better overall health, suffering less from diseases such as type 2 diabetes.
For those of us at sea level, however, it’s not possible to go to high altitude frequently, nor is it practical to sleep in high altitude tents. Luckily, there is another way: using breath holds to simulate high altitude.
Through breath holds, we experience intermittent hypoxia, allowing us to temporarily drop our blood oxygen saturation to levels that mimic high altitude. For example, in picture above, I dropped my blood oxygen saturation to 85%, simulating an altitude of roughly 13,000 feet (this is about 2.5x the altitude of Denver, CO). Studies have shown that performing breath holds can increase hemoglobin, hematocrit, and EPO, ultimately leading to increased oxygen carrying capacity and improved endurance. In addition to the performance gains, studies have also indicated that intermittent hypoxia can benefit the cardiovascular system, improve immune function, reduce inflammation, and improve glucose tolerance.
Personally, I have experienced increased energy and performance since beginning breath hold training. I’ve also experienced better control of my blood sugars (I’m a type 1 diabetic), which might be partly due to the effects of intermittent hypoxia. Sometimes when I’m tired or even feel a little cold coming on, I use specific breath hold techniques to give me extra energy, with the added benefit of reducing the impacts of the cold.
Although breath hold training is generally safe, before starting it’s important to assess your general breathing fitness and to make sure you do not have any conditions that would make breath holding unsafe (e.g., if you are pregnant). My recommendation is to begin with an instructor who can ensure breath holding is safe for you and who can give you beginning breath hold practices. Another good place to start is by reading the Oxygen Advantage, which outlines several different breath hold techniques.