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Placebo Training Effects at Altitude

Athletes have been training at altitude for many years having discovered how less oxygen during training sessions has improved their performances. 


But now, studies have shown that we can trick the brain into thinking it is receiving oxygen, when in fact, it isn't.




By training at 2,400 metres/8,000 feet above sea level, athletes bodies will adapt to the thinner air. To compensate for this lack of oxygen the body informs one of its hormones, erythropoietin (EPO) to produce extra red blood cells (RBCs) which will help the delivery of the available air to the muscles.  More RBCs, the greater amount of oxygen delivered. 

This effect should last between 10 and 20 days, so the athletes will time their altitude camp with their major sporting event. The net result is an improvement in performance by between 1% and 3%. This does not sound a lot, but as margins are so small in Elite sport, it could be the difference between reaching the A final or achieving an Olympic medal. 





Fabrizio Benedetti of the University of Turin, Italy has been looking at the “placebo effect” at altitude. 

He has carried out research in the Pico Simón Bolívar Colombian and from his base in the Alps. Normally at such heights, you would have a shortage of breathe and an elevation in heart rate. But Benedetti found that giving someone an oxygen tank will reverse this; even when the tank is empty.

Benedetti says the effect only works if an individual is given a “full” tank 2 or 3 times before receiving the “empty” tank. It seems that the body is expecting an oxygen hit and thinks it has received one. 

“This is the one-billion [dollar] question,” says Benedetti. “There is no oxygen in the blood, there is no oxygen in the body, but you can get the very same effect as real oxygen. The real answer is we don’t know.” 

But is Benedetti seriously suggesting you can “trick” the brain into believing it is receiving oxygen when it isn’t. 

Benedetti answers emphatically: “No, because in order to induce powerful, robust placebo responses, you first need conditioning with the oxygen. Which means that probably, but this is just a speculation, oxygen leaves a trace in the brain.” 

It is these traces of oxygen left in the brain that anticipate the arrival of more oxygen after the athlete receives his/her placebo. 

Worryingly for sport an athlete can be given a banned substance during training and then a placebo before competition. Benedetti explains that “The placebo can mimic the effect, but without any drug in the body. This is a problem for anti-doping tests.”


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