Low altitude at Vancouver Olympics means fewer records in speed skating

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

WASHINGTON - Experts have determined that the altitude of the venue of a sports extravaganza, like the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, can have a significant impact on performance of the contestants, making it difficult for athletes to make new records in events like speed skating.

Researchers say that for winter sports athletes, the altitude of the sports venue can have a significant impact on performance, requiring athletes in skill sports, such as figure skating, ski jumping and snowboarding, to retool highly technical moves to accommodate more or less air resistance.

When considering the challenges and benefits of training and performing at sea level verses altitude, people often think of the effect altitude can have on oxygen delivery to muscles.

At higher altitudes, the body initially delivers less oxygen to muscles, which can result in fatigue occurring sooner during exercise.

Higher altitudes also have less air density - about 3 percent reduction for every 1,000 feet - which can result in faster speeds in ski and skating races due to less aerodynamic drag, but can also affect timing and other technical components in skill sports.

“Many athletes perform thousands upon thousands of moves so they get a certain motor pattern ingrained,” said Robert Chapman, an expert in altitude training at Indiana University.

“A different altitude will change the feedback they get from balance and proprieception. In an endurance sport such as cross country skiing or biathlon, for competition at altitude, it takes about 10-14 days to adjust,” he said.For a skill sport, it’s harder to judge how long it will take to acclimate to the reduced air density at altitude,” he explained.

“Hopefully, these athletes have incorporated this into their training, maybe in the last year or for a period of time, not just the two weeks leading up to competition,” Chapman added.

The Winter Olympics are being held in Vancouver, British Columbia, which is practically at sea level.

The ice events also are nearly at sea level, with other venues ranging from altitudes of around 2,600 feet for the sled events to around 5,000 feet for women’s and men’s downhill skiing.

Chapman said fans should expect few record times in speed skating events because of the low altitude and greater air resistance facing athletes.

“The general thought is that altitude slows you down because you have less oxygen going to your muscles,” Chapman said.

According to Chapman, the women’s and men’s Olympic downhill skiing, freestyle skiing and snowboarding events take place at higher altitudes this month and could require technical adjustments by the athletes. (ANI)

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