To train as distance runner, sleep in rarefied air of the mountains


September 15, 1992|By Dr. Gabe Mirkin | Dr. Gabe Mirkin,Contributing Writer

If you watched the recent Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, no doubt you were impressed with the performance of runners from mountainous nations. You may have wondered why this was so.

The reason: The runners' high-altitude home environments helped them become better competitive distance runners because sleeping at high altitude helps the body use oxygen more efficiently.

Igor Gamow of the University of Colorado has shown you can run faster by sleeping where oxygen is sparse. When you sleep at high altitudes, you breathe oxygen-sparse air, causing your kidneys to produce large amounts of erythropoietin (EPO), a hormone that stimulates your bone marrow to increase production of red blood cells. This increases the blood's ability to transport oxygen, so you can run faster.

You might simply take an injection of EPO, but EPO can cause clots in your arteries. A host of healthy Dutch bicyclists died a few years ago after injecting EPO. It is now banned and will be part of regular drug testing at the next Olympic Games.

Some athletes get blood transfusions to increase their body's ability to transport more oxygen. U.S. cyclists did that before the 1984 Games in Los Angeles. That can be risky, though, since blood transfusions can transmit hepatitis or AIDS-related illnesses. Another approach is to bank your own blood and have it transfused back into your body just before competition. But that, too, can cause blood clots.

However, when you train at high altitude, the lack of oxygen in the air tires you earlier. Thus, you can't do as much work.

Therefore, the best way to train for competitive distance running is to "bed dope": sleep in a special oxygen-sparse chamber at night and then train at sea level. And you can buy one of these chambers from Dr. Gamow for about $10,000!

* Q: Please settle an argument in my household. Why do we get goose bumps?

A: Goose bumps keep you warm.

The hairs on your body lie close to your skin and have tiny muscles, called arectores pilorum, attached to them. When you are cold or frightened, the muscles pull on the hairs to make them stand up. The hair pulls on the surrounding skin, forming a "goose bump."

The perpendicular hairs trap air in the same way that the fibers in a sweater trap air. The trapped air is an excellent insulator to help keep you warm.

Contraction of the arectores pilorum muscles also causes the hair to press against the oil glands located at the base of the hair shaft, squeezing oil to the surface of the skin. The oil covers the skin's surface, helping to keep the skin warm by reducing the cooling effects of sweat evaporating from the skin.

In prehistoric times, when our ancestors ran around without clothes, goose bumps protected them from enemies. Prehistoric humans had longer, thicker, darker hair. When it stood on end, it made them appear larger and scared their enemies away.

still develop goose bumps when we are scared, but since we wear clothes, our goose bumps aren't noticeable. They may help to keep us warm, but unfortunately, they don't make us appear larger to a would-be mugger.

EDr. Mirkin is a practicing physician in Silver Spring specializing in sports medicine and nutrition.

( United Feature Syndicate

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