Racing down Sunset Crater’s paved trails on 18-inch roller skis, World Cup gold medalist Mark Arendz is training at Northern Arizona’s high altitude in preparation for the 2014 Winter Paralympics. As the world’s best para-biathlete, the 23-year-old Canadian knows he’s the one to beat in Sochi, Russia during the competition that combines cross-country skiing with marksmanship. “I’m the one with the target on my back,” he said.
Meanwhile, in Northern Arizona University’s Wall Aquatic Center, elite swimmers like 21-year-old Hoi Shun Au and 25-year-old Hang Yu Sze are looking down the lane to the World Cup Games in Barcelona this month. “I cannot be sure what the other teams are doing, but what I can control is to be in the final top eight in the world,” said Hong Kong Sports Institute Head Swimming Coach Martin Grabowski.
On the track, at a pool or on a mountain where fractions of a second can add up to world championships, top runners, swimmers and skiers are among those seeking to move faster, go farther and last longer with high altitude training.
Guiding the world’s best athletes to greater heights at Flagstaff’s 7,000-foot-high training ground and, they hope, to the top of the podium, is high altitude sports training organization Hypo2. “It’s quite a responsibility to have other countries trust us with their elite athletes!” said Hypo2 founder Sean Anthony.
Sports scientists explain the physiological benefits of high altitude training like this: At high elevations, the air is thin so there is less oxygen reaching muscle tissue than there would be at sea level. The human body reacts by producing the hormone erythropoietin (EPO), which stimulates the production of red blood cells to deliver more oxygen. Other changes that happen during high altitude training include an increase in the number of small blood vessels, an increase in the body’s ability to manage the build up of waste (lactic) acid, and changes in the microscopic structure and foundation of the muscles.
“The main thing we look for is called plasma volume expansion,” said Canadian Para-Nordic Ski Team Sports Scientist Shane Esau, who monitors the athletes to get the optimal training session out of each day. “By training at high altitude, you get a cascade of events including hormonal and neuromuscular responses. You create more blood. When it goes back to the heart, it increases the size of the heart. A cross-country skier who is able to go 10 miles an hour may be able to increase that speed by three percent. They also become more economical. To go a given distance, they are using less energy because of the plasma volume expansion.”
While athletes are pumping up their oxygen-carrying red blood cells, Hypo2 is pumping some $1.8 million annually into the region’s economy.
That monetary benefit is explained by NAU’s Jeffrey Peterson, principal investigator on a report conducted by the Arizona Rural Policy Institute at the W. A. Franke College of Business, The Economic Impact of HYPO2 Training Camp Sport Management on the Economy of Coconino County.
“Basically the major impact of bringing all these athletes in who have financial backing from sponsors or countries is they are bringing money from the outside into the local economy, which is a net economic gain for us as a city,” said Peterson. “They end up putting them up in motels, bringing money to facilities around town, renting cars, hiring people like masseuses and physicians. The athletes themselves buy souvenirs and go out to eat.”
“Hypo2 is a huge, integral part of the success of our hotel,” said Embassy Suites Flagstaff General Manager Amy Todd. “The working relationship we have with Sean Anthony is bar none, better than any other relationship with any other client. The teams are top notch and they bring a lot of exposure to the Flagstaff area. We love having them with us.”
The high altitude training camps are also supporting 22 jobs, according to the report. “This is impressive, since those jobs would not be here without Hypo2,” said Peterson.
Formerly the assistant director at NAU’s High Altitude Training Center, Anthony saw an opportunity when the university closed its program. In the last year he has joined NACET (Northern Arizona Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology), which he credits for providing Hypo2 with a stronger business structure, a better means of identifying new opportunities and a fundamentally different way to look at how it does what it does. Among the teams he’s been bringing in are Australia’s wildly popular Collingwood Magpies and Carlton Blues, who can attract more than 90,000 fans to their home games.
“In Melbourne, ‘Flagstaff’ is a household word,” he said.
“He did the smart thing,” said NAU Associate Vice President of Economic Development and Sustainability Rich Bowen. “He maintained relationships and as a result, we have a strong partnership. The university has worked with Sean to make facilities available and work out schedules with the training team. We’re just thrilled that he’s been successful and that he’s maintained those relationships with international teams and continues to bring those international athletes to Flagstaff.”
There are many things that make Flagstaff a perfect place to train, says Anthony, but facilities are key. “We have incredible training facilities at Northern Arizona University and the local high schools. For example, where else in the world can you find four 400-meter tracks at an appropriate elevation for altitude training?”
“Hypo2 is the epitome of a professional experience,” said Esau. “They have all the medical contacts like acupuncturists and physical therapists we need when we need them and this is the ideal place because we have everything here.”
“Everything” also includes diversions from training, like a walkable downtown or a trip to the Grand Canyon, which Hypo2 will organize as well.
“Efficiency is what makes us so valuable,” said Anthony. “We centrally coordinate these training camps and take care of all the logistical details so athletes can focus on performing, coaches focus on training them, physical therapists focus on bodywork and sports scientists concentrate on monitoring the physiological end of things. Everyone gets to concentrate on what they do best, which makes for a much more efficient training camp.”
With the absence of the Arizona Cardinals training camp, NAU and Hypo2 see an opportunity to make room for more international teams and a larger economic gain.
“We have the opportunity to expand that portfolio,” said Bowen. “We’ve been talking with Sean about including European soccer teams who are looking to train at high altitude. Soccer is certainly a big draw and those teams are so popular, they’ll bring fans from a long ways away. That alone could replace the Cardinals’ impact.”
“The athletes who come to Hypo2 have won a good amount of medals in the Olympics and Paralympics,” said Peterson. “People look up to these champions, so there is a great deal of potential to grow because high altitude endurance sports training seems to be on the rise.”
“We’ve always seen the great benefit in altitude training,” said Arendz. “With the big event in Sochi later on, we decided to go even higher and get a bigger boost from an altitude camp. Flagstaff is such a beautiful place to train and enjoy the sun. Maybe I’ll get a tan!” FBN