Before I get into my comments about the device itself, I think its worth me painting the picture about my position on gadgets and their use in training. Firstly, I am writing this from the perspective of both a coach and an athlete. I still compete at an age-group level and as an athlete I am always interested in anything that can give me an edge (legally of course!). I have always been interested in gadgets (although I'm sure the people over at Altium wouldn't refer to the i10 as such!) and now as a coach use a whole host of tech to try get the most out of my athletes – especially when coaching athletes who live and train elsewhere in the country/world. I see items like heart rate monitors, power meters, and now the Altium, as tools in a toolbox that can all help to build a better performing athlete – when used at the appropriate times.
I am also a natural cynic. I would never recommend any athlete use any device (or for that matter, training method) unless I truly believed that it worked and would benefit the individual in some way. As an example, last summer I spent time in Switzerland being mentored by world famous Triathlon Coach Brett Sutton. During my time with Brett he explained to me his views on why riding 'big gear' (lower cadence) was beneficial to long-course triathletes. Having been though the run-of-the-mill British Triathlon coaches courses where they preach the opposite (high cadence spinning), I wanted to get some kind of proof that what he was saying was true. Of course, the fact that he had multiple World and Olympic Champions in his stable that had been coached this way should have been enough proof, but I wanted to go out and run tests myself. I then proceeded to run a series of hill (aka mountain) repeat tests at varying cadences using a heart rate monitor and power meter so I could later compare the results. I won't go into the results here because that is not the purpose of this blog, but suffice to say – Brett was right! Anyway, my point here is that I don't use or recommend any products unless I truly believe they work. Ok – the Altium i10……
I must be honest and say that I can't remember where I first saw the device advertised. I think it may have been a Facebook ad. Either way, I was immediately interested. The advert seemed to be suggesting that in effect this device would give the user some of the same benefits of training at altitude. Up until this point regular altitude training was only for those who had the time and resources to either go and train for weeks up an actual mountain or spend vast amounts on an altitude tent. I wanted to give the Altium i10 a go myself so I contacted them and asked if they would allow me to do some tests and write my thoughts – and here we are!
When I first received the device, I was around 8 weeks out from my own 'A race' Ironman Frankfurt. I really liked the thought of getting a boost with my training and hopefully a good performance and PB. Of course as an individual, the problem with testing devices like this while in the depths of a training plan, is that you never quite know what was the main cause of any performance improvements you see. Naturally, performances should improve as your training plan progresses towards your race. It is impossible to pin-down what changes have been down to 'proper' training and what is down to the Altium i10. All I can do here is report what happened and leave the reader to make up their own mind….
Before we get onto the performance side of the device, I wanted to cover a little about its physical appearance and how it all works. Firstly, it came in a very impressive steel briefcase. The briefcase contained the device itself, the finger monitor (aka oximeter) and four CO2 scrubber cartridges. Using the enclosed quick start guide I had quickly assembled everything and was ready to run my first test. What I wasn't quite sure about was how to calibrate the device by adding/removing the little rubber bungs and foam discs. However, a quick check on the Altium website and email to support quickly had me on my way.
When you start to use the device you need to first go through a 'loading phase' where you use the device more frequently. I have tried to find out about exactly what the loading phase does but couldn't find any information on it. My assumption is that this phase helps the body get used to the device and start to adapt to the demands of having less oxygen – it gets you off to a good start and gives an initial 'boost'. There are two choices of loading phase. You can either use the device every other day for 30 days or do 15 consecutive days. I'm impatient so decided in the 15 day option!
Each session on the Altium i10 should take an hour. In simple terms, you attach the nose clip and breathe in and out through the device. Each time you breathe through the device some of the oxygen is 'scrubbed' away by the CO2 cartridge so when you breathe in again the oxygen content of the air breathed in is lower. It is this lower oxygen level that simulates being at altitude.
Each session on the Altium i10 comprises of six minutes of breathing hypoxic air through the device with four minutes of breathing normal air (6 cycles = 1 hour). While you are going through each session the finger monitor keeps track of the oxygen saturation (SPO2) in the blood. When you start to use the device the SPO2 level starts at 99% before dropping down as you progress through the six minute breathing phase. The lower the percentage, the lower the oxygen level, the higher the 'altitude'. Altium recommend not going below 80% and the device actually cuts out when it detects readings of around 78% or lower. The target is to remain in the 80-92% region.
I found that the device took some getting used to. Firstly, I had to remove some of the rubber bungs in the device for it to allow me to breathe without too much restriction (like breathing through a straw). I understand this is completely normal and part of the calibration process. Then there was the actual sensation of breathing air with a lower oxygen content. I under estimated how this would make me feel. During the six minute hypoxic breathing element of the cycle I was getting quite light headed and started to feel a bit weird. It wasn't a bad sensation as such, it was just a sensation I hadn't felt before. This sensation increased as the SPO2 reading got down to the lower 80's before easing off again during the four minute recovery element of the cycle. I was also finding that the one-hour session was taking nearer to 80 minutes due to the delays caused by the device cutting out at the sub-80% safety level.
Getting Used To It
As the first few loading days went by I found the device much easier to use. The light-headed sensations reduced (presumably as my body adapted) and I got used to adjusting my breathing to keep the SPO2 reading from dropping too low and the device cutting out. I actually started to enjoy the odd fuzzy feeling I got when breathing 80-85% oxygen!
The Practical Side
One of the biggest problems I had with the device was finding the time to dedicate an hour per day to effectively sitting and doing nothing while using the Altium i10. It sounds crazy but I hadn't considered where I would find this time in my usually very busy day. When using the Altium i10 you effectively need to add the hour needed to your training schedule. The device also needs to be completely washed after every use to ensure it stays clean and hygienic.
The CO2 scrubber cartridges last for 2-3 sessions. You can tell when they need changing as the granules change from white to purple. The cartridges also become less effective at scrubbing the oxygen as you breathe meaning that it sometimes takes a long time to get your SPO2 readings down (and simulated altitude up). Old cartridges simply need to be thrown in the general waste once they are no longer needed. I must say that as a recycler this made me feel a little uncomfortable. The cartridges are substantial things and I suspect they will live for a long time in landfill – I think Altium should consider an exchange plan where they take the spent cartridges back and dispose of them properly.
The Altium i10 costs £499 including 5 x CO2 scrubber cartridges. Replacement cartridges cost £10 each although there are deals to bring this price down a little. These prices effectively mean that the initial purchase price of £499 is enough to get the user through the loading phase before more cartridges are needed. Once the initial loading phase is done the maintenance cycle comprises of 5 days of use followed by 15 days of recovery. This means each maintenance cycle will use 2 cartridges (@ £10 each) effectively giving you an ongoing cost of around £30 per month.
Ultimately this is what it is all about. At this point I would have loved to have provided a whole raft of before and after test results showing huge changes in performance. The reality is that my own personal circumstances have prevented me from following the loading and maintenance protocol suggested by Altium. I have simply been too busy to commit to the 60-80 mins per day needed to use the device. This could be seen as a failure on my part as a 'tester' but it is actually my experience as a real-time user with a busy life. That said, there is some good news……
I used the device on and off for around 4-5 weeks (around 20 sessions in total). This in no-way followed the loading and maintenance protocol suggest by Altium BUT it was still placing physiological demands on my system – I was still 'altitude training'. As I mentioned above, I was deep in training for Ironman Frankfurt when I started to use the device. As such, my training load was increasing and as a result I was getting fitter and stronger. I conducted swim CSS tests and bike FTP tests shortly before using the Altium i10 and retested these after I had been using the device for the 4-5 weeks. I am pleased to say that I saw considerable improvements in my results taking around 6 seconds per 100m off my CSS/100m pace and an increase in FTP of around 10%. Did the Altium have a part to play in these improvements? It is difficult to be certain, but I suspect it did. After using the device for a few weeks I felt like my longer aerobic workouts were more effortless - I felt like I had a more efficient engine. Due to the very sporadic and unscientific nature of my testing it is impossible to draw any real conclusions on the benefits of the device but I simply felt that it had helped me.
I stopped using the device a couple of weeks out from my A race at Ironman Frankfurt (Altium recommend this). The race itself went well apart from a mechanical problem on the bike robbing me of 45-50 mins. I had trained with the hope of gaining a sub-10 time and I eventually finished in 10:56 so taking off the lost bike time I would have been looking at 10:05-10:10, a time I would have been really pleased with and a significant PB.
Will I Continue to Use The Altium i10?
Now Frankfurt is out of the way my intention is to enter into a new three-month training block as I look towards another race in early Autumn. Now I am comfortable with how to use the device and have a little more time my intention is to use the device for a full three month period and do some more detailed testing. I will blog about my progress as we go along.
Well, I guess there isn't a conclusion just yet. The Altium is a quality device that promises good results. The running costs are reasonable and I suspect it will eventually show real, measurable results for me – only time will tell.
UPDATE: End of Trial Results, thoughts and conclusion
I wrote the above 'initial thoughts' back in July after having used the Altium for a few months. This update will cover my usage from July onwards and will include my final thoughts on the device.
As I indicated above, one of my main problems with the Altium was how to squeeze the extra hour that is needed into my already super-busy schedule. This continued to be an issue but I was determined to get through the Altium loading phase prior to my next 'big' race – Ironman Barcelona in early October.
Up until now, my use of the Altium had been somewhat sporadic and I would recommend that anyone who is considering buying one of the units gives this time commitment some serious thought. Also, one could pose the question – if you HAVE an extra hour per day to train, how would that be best spent? On the Altium or doing more sport-specific training, like an extra hour on the bike or in the pool?
In September I received my new batch of Altium canisters and set myself the target of completing the loading phase of 15 consecutive days before the 22nd of September. I used this date as I wanted the loading phase to be completed before I started my taper for my Barcelona race on 2nd October (Altium also recommend stopping use of the device 72hrs before competition to allow your 'body to recover'). I 'loaded' from the 8th September through to the 22nd September and I must say that I actually quite enjoyed it! As I mentioned above, I weirdly like the slightly fuzzy-headed feeling I got when using the device. I also really liked putting one hour aside each day to just sit and breathe! It is this experience of using the Altium that has got me onto the idea of daily meditation (but that probably says more about me than the Altium itself!).
By the end of September, I had completed a total of 32 sessions on the Altium i10. 17 of these were sporadic and not in-line with the suggested protocol, and 15 were in a single block during the successful loading phase. Altium do say that you do still get benefits from using the device even when your consistency is a bit hit-and-miss. Its not ideal, but it is better than not using it. Interestingly they have also now released a more forgiving 'lifestyle' protocol to allow people to incorporate regular use into a busier (aka normal) lifestyle.
Ultimately, the reason for using the Altium i10 is to improve performance. Improvements can be measured in many different ways including: faster race times, better outcomes in benchmark tests or improvements in bike FTP / Swim CSS etc. This year, I haven't raced all that often, and certainly not consistently enough to use races as a gauge of improvements. I also generally also only race long-course so there are a multitude of things that can affect race outcomes. During the trial period, I did indeed show signs of improvement during my bike FTP (10% improvement) and Swim CSS tests (6 secs off my 100m CSS pace) but it is difficult to say how much of this improvement is down to the Altium i10 as I was training progressively and as such should have improved anyway.
So, in summary, whether I have shown any improvements in performance as a direct result of the Altium i10 is very difficult to say BUT what I will say is that I am sure SOMETHING changed. After my first couple of weeks of using the device, I started to feel 'different'. Now this is where I get a little wishy-washy and vague because the sensation I am describing is not a clear, defined stat or bit of data that I can pull from a training file or spreadsheet. The only way I can describe it is as though I had gone from being a 2.0 diesel engine to a 4.0 (I'm certainly not petrol!). When training, particularly at or around threshold level, I felt much more in control and as though I could sustain the effort for longer – in general terms it felt easier. I also noticed that my respiration rate seemed to be lower and I simply wasn't breathing as hard as I used to. Now I'm sure that with some properly executed tests we could get to the bottom of this, but at this stage I haven't been able to do that.
I spoke to Altium about the change in breathing as I was interested to know if they had heard reports of things like this before (and it makes sense if your body is becoming more effective at utilising oxygen) and they gave me the following reply:
This is the most common form of feedback we get; that a similar level of work now feels somewhat easier. It is most likely due to an improvement in oxygen efficiency, which is a result of an increased carrying capacity of O2 in the blood. This means with each breath taken, the body is able to deliver and utilise oxygen more efficiently. So, it is not that your body needs less oxygen, it is just now able to better use what oxygen it has.
It may also be explained by an increase in lung capacity, and an improvement in breathing pattern, which is something often overlooked. Most users of Altium i10 probably find they only concentrate on their breathing when actually using it (other than when swimming). Breathing is governed by the autonomic nervous system so we have no need to think about it. However when we do the breathing pattern can be improved and may translate to an improvement during exercise.
As far as testing is concerned, the VO2 max is the best measure of 'fitness' we have, however it has its problems and can suffer from inaccuracies in people other than elite athletes. Perhaps a better measure is VO2 efficiency; this is measure of the volume of oxygen consumed to achieve a given workload. We would expect this to change before and after continuous altium use, with a reduced volume of oxygen required post use. This is similar to what you are describing.
It has been an interesting experience using the Altium i10. I saw some improvements in performance and in general training just seemed to start to feel easier. The time commitment needed to use the Altium is certainly something that any would-be user should consider but as I said above, I actually started to enjoy the time I set aside to use the device. Would I use the Altium i10 on an ongoing basis? Yes, BUT I would want to get some more regular tests done. Would I recommend my coached athletes use the Altium i10? Yes, provided they have the time to spare (and would not detract from 'proper' training sessions).
P.S. I completed Ironman Barcelona and had by far my fastest IM bike split of 5:03 despite nutritional issues. Altium i10?………