Gravity-altering treadmills? Nitrogen chambers? Welcome to the lab that turns sweat into gold
The cutting-edge equipment used by TeamGB's Olympic contenders is given a work-out by Tom Peck
Those with a ticket to the Olympics this summer will be looking forward to seeing the battle lost and won – on the track, in the pool, in the ring, on the pommel horse – wherever it may be.
Those tickets, as is all too well known, have become an incredibly precious commodity. But almost no one will lay eyes on what is rapidly becoming sport's most precious battleground: the lab.
At Loughborough University, where the TeamGB preparation camp is based, and where athletes are arriving every day to receive their whole suitcases full of official kit, is one of the high performance centres of the English Institute of Sport. Part gym, part laboratory, it is a curious place, but it is here that athletes come, to breathe in artificially thinned air and to sweat themselves silly on "gravity altering" equipment in pursuit of the precious hundredths of a second that they know will deliver them from inconsequence to glory this summer.
The Institute was set up in response to the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, at which Great Britain won just one gold (that man Redgrave again), mimicking the institute set up some time previously by the infuriatingly successful Australians. Every gold and silver medallist that was part of TeamGB's record haul in Beijing had worked with the EIS in some form or another.
I have come to use a few of the ground- breaking bits of equipment over which Steve Ingham, the Institute's lead physiologist, presides.
First up is the "Alter-G" gravity altering treadmill, a snip at £60,000, which the EIS have placed inside a nitrogen flooded chamber, thinning the oxygen in the air to create an artificial high-altitude environment.
To demonstrate the effect of altitude, I was made to do three minutes on a £30,000, high-precision exercise bike, at a power rating of 150 watts, in the normal environment. This was not hugely taxing, even for me – Bradley Wiggins powers along at 400 watts for the entirety of the Tour de France. Sir Chris Hoy, meanwhile, apparently breaks the costly exercise bikes with regularity, and loves it every time he does so. On the first three seconds of a race he powers off at 2,300 watts – the same as a Formula One car. A little probe on my finger shows that 99 per cent of the haemoglobin in my red blood cells is carrying oxygen round my body – that's normal.
At altitude it is a different matter. Increasing to 175 watts for just three minutes was agonising. I could feel the air going in, in big gulps, but to such little avail. The finger probe reads 89 per cent. a tenth of my blood is ambling round my body empty.
The aim of altitude training is to increase "EPO", the chemical that produces haemoglobin in the blood. More haemoglobin means more oxygen, and therefore more stamina. A year of altitude training can lead to a 0.5 to 0.6 per cent improvement, which counts for a lot. "Had Kelly Holmes been 0.6 per cent slower in Athens, she'd have come sixth," Ingham points out.
One small mercy from my gruelling visit is that they hadn't had an ice delivery, and thus I was spared the dreaded ice bath. I did see it, however, and it looked like it could hold quite a few bottles of bubbly. Hopefully it'll need to.
My session in the Team GB gym...
The weights: Swimming, running, long jump, fencing – virtually all Olympic sports are apparently about driving force through the hips. Weightlifting is its purest manifestation. No matter what an Olympian's discipline, the chances are he or she will spend time on the "snatch" or the "clean and jerk".
The treadmill: The airtight bag around the "Alter-G" gravity-altering treadmill, inflates and deflates at the push of a button, relieving, or putting on again, up to half your bodyweight. Running with weight off is easier on the joints, but doing so in a high-altitude environment more than compensates.
The bike: The probe on my finger reveals what percentage of the haemoglobin is carrying oxygen round the body – it should be 100 per cent. In the high-altitude chamber it drops to around 85 per cent. In layman's terms, it's knackering.
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