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Swimmers Like Julia Gaffney Find Altitude Training Brings Improved Performance

By Ryan Wilson | March 30, 2021, 11:25 a.m. (ET)

Julia Gaffney dives into the pool at the Para swimming world series. (Photo: Peter Bick)

High altitude is known for affecting athletes in positive and negative ways.

The thin air can cause shortness of breath in runners but also helps baseball players slug more home runs. There is no question altitude is a factor in sports, even in swimming.

For the athletes training at the United States Olympic & Paralympic Training Center (OPTC) in Colorado Springs, Colorado, they benefit from the luxury of sitting 6,000-plus feet above sea level.

“You get to train at altitude, which just makes your lungs stronger,” Julia Gaffney said.

Gaffney is the reigning SM7 200-meter individual medley world champion hoping to compete at the postponed Paralympic GamesTokyo 2020. She and fellow national team swimmers have trained at the OPTC during the pandemic and noticed a slight difference in their training.

At higher altitude, there is less oxygen in the air to breathe. This change in oxygen then changes breathing patterns, and, as a result, blood flow. The body is able to use this to its advantage when competing at sea level.

“(It is) proven to be beneficial to train at altitude to increase endurance levels,” Dr. Simon Goodwill said. 

Goodwill leads the Centre for Sports Engineering Research (CSER) through Sheffield Hallam University in Sheffield, England. CSER says it is the “world’s largest academic group of sport engineering,” and it focuses on applied computing, biomechanics, design engineering and skill acquisition. 

Established in 1996, the group works with Olympic and Paralympic athletes from Great Britain.

Goodwill referenced the well-researched findings that altitude training (AT) improves athlete endurance for sea level training. A 2011 report in the National Institutes of Health said the practice of AT is controversial, but there are benefits.

“Swimmers who train using hypoxia (changes in oxygen levels) may be among the best-trained athletes, and that even a slight improvement in physical endurance might result in the shortening of a swimming time in a given competition, and the achievement of a personal best, which is hard to obtain by normal training methods, when the personal results of the swimmer have reached a plateau,” the report stated.

A 2016 Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research report found athletes who trained at altitude paced to 5-, 10- and 15-meters slightly quicker. The study looked at 15 male swimmers from the Spanish Junior National Team and compared their times before and after 17 days of altitude training.

USA Swimming, which does not govern U.S. Paralympics Swimming, has had a policy for “altitude adjusted times,” requiring swimmers to subtract seconds from times they achieved at altitude. For example, swimmers must deduct .50 seconds from their finishing time in a 200-meter race at an altitude of 3,000 to 4,250 feet. They must subtract 1.60 seconds from 200-meter times above 6,500 feet.

Altitude training is becoming increasingly popular with elite athletes, like LeBron James, using hyperbaric chambers. These pressurized chambers mimic the effects of high altitude on the body. They increase the oxygen in the blood and help with injuries.

Former Olympian Michael Phelps told the Associated Press in 2012 he would sleep in a chamber that, he said, resembled a fish tank. 

We've been able to realize after going to Colorado Springs so many times that it is something that helps me recover, Phelps, then 26, said. That's something that is so important to me now being older. I don't recover as fast as I used to.”

While Gaffney holds the S7 100-meter backstroke world record at 1:19.47, she is aiming for even faster times in Tokyo. In the Springs, she said she practices visualization techniques before hopping into the pool and envisions what she wants to do.

She is one of 30 or so athletes at the restricted OPTC in the lead up to the Tokyo Games. Gaffney said there are around 12 athletes in the pool at a time.

“Right now at the pool, we have girls at one side of the pool,” she said. “We kind of have the guys on the other side of the pool, so we are not always breathing on each other.”

The athletes staying at the OPTC during the pandemic are restricted, but they are still able to catch a few treats: Chick-fil-A and Wendy’s. 

“Last year, I took swimming pretty seriously,” Gaffney said. “This year, I’m trying to also have fun with it, have fun with teammates.”

Ryan Wilson

Ryan Wilson is a writer and independent documentary filmmaker from Champaign, Illinois. He is a freelance contributor to USParaSwimming.org on behalf of Red Line EditorialInc.