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New Denver gym Traverse Fitness offers altitude training room

For decades, the benefits of altitude training for endurance athletes have been widely known. That’s what has made Boulder an international mecca for Olympic runners, triathletes, cyclists and mountaineers since the 1970s.

Now, altitude training is going high-tech.

At Traverse Fitness, a new gym in Denver with an “altitude room,” folks can get the training effect of working out as high as 20,000 feet. Going higher without leaving the Mile High City could prove attractive for elite high-altitude mountaineers, as well as weekend warriors training for events such as the Pikes Peak Marathon or the Leadville Trail 100.

But the altitude room at Traverse also can take members down to sea level, which could benefit runners who want to be able to do their high-intensity workouts at a faster pace than normal, or out-of-shape folks just getting started on a workout regimen.

“Altitude days” at Traverse are Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, while Tuesdays and Thursdays are sea-level days.

Cory Richards of Boulder, a high-altitude mountaineer, plans to sleep in the altitude room at Traverse before he leaves later this month for an expedition to Dhaulagiri, a Himalayan peak in Nepal that is the seventh-highest mountain in the world, at 26,795 feet. The idea is to get a head start on the acclimatization he will need to perform on Dhaulagiri, but he sees benefits for less extreme athletes as well.

“They’re doing all sorts of things there that I think are really fascinating,” said Richards, who has climbed Mount Everest twice, once without supplemental oxygen. “The value-add is amplified by the opportunity to either go up or down. A lot of times we only think about going up. ‘I want to train at altitude, because that’s what matters most to me.’ But there is a tremendous amount of benefit that can come from training low, too.

“I really hope they can open a facility here in Boulder. I think it would be gangbusters.”

When athletes who train at altitude “acclimatize,” a number of adaptations occur in response to lower air pressure at higher elevation that enable the blood to transport more oxygen. Generally speaking, people who live in Denver have a higher percentage of red blood cells than people who live at sea level.

Unlike natural altitude training, the altitude room at Traverse doesn’t regulate air pressure. In order to change the effective “elevation,” it simply increases or reduces the percentage of oxygen in the room. There is a similar altitude room at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.

One day this week, a group training for an ultramarathon in Wyoming this summer did a 50-mile treadmill run at an effective altitude of 9,000 feet. William LaGreca, a trainer at Traverse, is training for an Ironman triathlon in hopes of qualifying for the Kona world championships.

“If I’m on a high-altitude day, it’s more of a steady-state, lower heart rate for a longer period of time,” LaGreca said. “If I’m at sea level, I can kick it up a notch. That’s on my interval days, my (anaerobic) threshold work — short, high intensity, trying to build my pace.”

Co-owner Kris Peters said he was inspired to name the gym Traverse after the annual 40-mile Grand Traverse high-altitude ski mountaineering race from Crested Butte to Aspen.

“My vision for this room is for the weekend warriors,” Peters said. “Not just the elite, but that everyone can train at a level where they’re not getting pummeled at 11,000 feet in a ski race because they couldn’t make it to the resort (to train) all the time.”

The altitude room has treadmills and high-tech spin bikes connected to visual screens.

“We can do the Vail Pass ride,” said co-owner Jim Gerber. “On the screen, as you go up the hill, you’ll actually feel the resistance change in the bike without you doing anything. We have paddle shifts on the bike so you downshift or upshift, just like a normal bike experience. We’ll start to do fun things where we’re mimicking rides from around the world, and we can change the ‘altitude’ in the room as you’re going up and down different rides.”

There are benefits to going “down” to sea level as well. Runners can build leg strength by doing high-intensity intervals at faster paces than they can run at elevation, improving the pace at which they can race.

“The altitude is the sexy thing, but I think the sea level is actually very practical in how we can help improve people’s aerobic capacity and fitness,” Gerber said. “I think long-term, that’s going to be a really popular thing for us.”

The altitude room is one of two workout spaces at Traverse. The other is set up for high-intensity interval training — known as HIIT — with treadmills, spin bikes and high-tech pulley machines that can be used for myriad HIIT exercises. There’s also a recovery area featuring Normatec boots, which flush legs after workouts using pulsating compression.

The altitude room is what gives Traverse a unique market niche, though.

“We’re seeing people who are into working out, they’re not Olympic athletes, they’re not necessarily doing a marathon, but it’s that little bump from a new training experience,” Gerber said. “People are starting to see the benefits of, ‘I need to get back working out; I can train at sea level, improve my cardio and improve my strength in a much easier environment than at 5,200 feet where you are thrust into HIIT intensity exercises.’  

“We’re just excited to test the limits of this thing and see what we can do.”

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