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Pies present on altitude in Qatar

Simon Chiarelli  April 29, 2013 12:50 PM

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Collingwood Exercise Scientist Blake McLean, pictured on the sprung floor at the Westpac Centre, presented breakthrough research to a distinguished audience at a recent sports science conference held in Qatar.

Collingwood’s pioneering approach to altitude training has been recognised on the international stage after Club Exercise Scientist Blake McLean presented breakthrough research to a distinguished audience at a recent sports science conference held in Qatar.

Hosted by ASPETAR, the first specialised orthopaedic and sports medicine hospital in the Gulf region, the ‘Altitude Training and Team Sports’ conference saw representatives from organisations around the world, including FIFA convene to explore insights into the fledgling training methodology.

Having published the world’s first peer-reviewed research on altitude training in team sport athletes late last year, McLean was invited to present his findings of a follow up study after submitting his research for consideration to conference organisers.

“ASPETAR had paid for all the most significant researchers in altitude training to fly out to convene in the one place,” McLean said.

“There were probably two or three names missing, but besides that, there were all the big researchers in altitude training there to discuss how to best implement altitude training in team sports.

“In terms of altitude training to improve performance at sea level in team sports, there was only three or four presentations showing data in team sport athletes, and we still have the only piece of published research in the area.

“There’s also one to be released from Carlton sometime soon which was presented at the conference.”

As one of eight PhD/post-scholar speakers, McLean featured on the final day of the symposium to outline the club’s most recent findings from its investigation into the affects of hypoxic (altitude) training in a team environment.

This work follows on from data gleaned during Collingwood’s 2011 training camp in Arizona, which was published late last year in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance.

Contrasting the impact of a 19 day altitude training camp on 21 players with a control group of nine who completed the same program at sea level, the findings proved to justify Collingwood’s commitment to the program.

Players who trained at altitude achieved a 2.1 per cent greater improvement in running performance compared to the control group, and boasted a 3.6 per cent spike in haemoglobin mass – representing the oxygen carrying capacity of the blood.

While the changes in blood caused by altitude exposure gradually subside upon return to sea level, McLean explained many of the performance gains are facilitated by the increased training capacity following the extended stint at altitude.

McLean revealed the benefits are also believed to extend to physiological changes within the muscles, although the extent of which remains empirically unknown.

“A lot of the changes in the blood that you see from the altitude training camps will be gone about four weeks after you return to sea level,” McLean said.

“The main theory of the pre-season altitude camp is to obtain a physiological benefit which helps you train harder for the next month, which then improves your training capacity from then on. It’s almost like training to train. You keep building on top of what you’ve done.

“In terms of the changes in the blood that are happening with the altitude training camp, they don’t last for the full season. Some of the changes which might happen in the muscle could potentially been maintained with shorter exposures to hypoxic training when back in Melbourne, but we don’t know specifically what changes take place.”

Given the resources required to implement an altitude program in team sports, comprehensive quantitative data remains scarce.

But supported by Australian Catholic University, which linked with Collingwood to form an industry based scholarship offering, the club has positioned itself at the summit of altitude training research and development, emphasising the groundbreaking nature of its program.

With rival clubs following Collingwood’s lead in incorporating altitude training, McLean believes its widespread proliferation among AFL circles, particularly when compared to its adoption in other sports is a result of a combination of factors unique to the Australian game.

However, McLean believes such innovation is largely the natural product of a salary capped environment, which compels clubs to explore new frontiers in the bid to seek an edge over its rivals.

“We’re right at the top globally. In terms of the research we’ve got going into altitude in team sports, there’s probably one or two other places,” McLean said.

“We are restricted by a salary cap, and need to find our competitive edge in other ways, and this is one way we are looking to do it.

“(The salary cap) forces us to find our competitive advantage in areas like sports science where we are probably leading the way around the world.”

Collingwood’s landmark program will be further bolstered upon completion of the Southern Hemisphere’s largest altitude room at the Westpac Centre next month.

While the altitude room expected to augment the Collingwood’s existing training regimen, McLean says the club will conduct further research, including frequent collaborator the AIS to uncover how to best integrate its use, and optimise physiological outcomes.

“We have a study coming up towards the end of the year which will investigate how to best use the altitude room, and how that impacts our players running performance,” McLean said.

“The goal (is) that once we get that data, we’ll combine it with the research we’ve done so far, and optimise our strategies of combining pre-season altitude camp flowing into training in the altitude room to maximise running performance throughout the year.”