Everyone from NASA pilots to MMA fighters goes through oxygen deprivation testing and training. There are websites devoted to helping you train under conditions of reduced oxygen, in order to boost your athletic prowess. But does it work? And how could oxygen starvation possibly make you stronger?
As part of its training facility, NASA has a small, enclosed room. Within that room, the trainers can alter all sorts of things — including the oxygen concentration of the air. They can simulate high altitude oxygen levels, thinning out the oxygen content of the air so that potential pilots can experience hypoxia — oxygen deprivation — for different periods of time and measure their reactions to it. Because it's NASA, at least one of those tests includes filling out basic paperwork. Mary Roach, who took part in a test along with a boatload of MIT students in an engineering competition, recalls feeling absolutely fine, and breathing normally — and upon being asked questions like, "Why did you want to take part in this," writing responses like, "W."
The test weeds out people who have extreme reactions to low oxygen levels and hallucinate or become violently ill, but the room is also meant to build up ability. Ideally, after a few cycles in the room, a potential pilot would get at least good enough to add a vowel. High altitude training started out as something for pilots and long-distance runners, who need to be trained to make the most of their oxygen, but has spread to many sports, including mixed martial arts fighters and weight lifters. It started with people going up mountains to train, and has blossomed into people buying masks that reduce oxygen content. For high level athletes, there are even training facilities.
Does it actually help? Even though the World Anti Doping Association considered prohibiting artificially induced low oxygen conditions, there's no absolute consensus on how much good it does — or even what it does. Some tests show that training at high altitude oxygen levels increases the amount of red blood cells, the cells that grab oxygen and ferry it around, in a body, and helps the body draw on larger amounts of oxygen than a sea-level body could. Other tests show exactly the opposite; that the training does nothing to improve the body's oxygen levels. It just allows the body to work better for short bursts without oxygen. Still others show that living at high-altitude conditions fatigues people to the point where they can't exercise as much and their performance drops.
Again, science comes up against the complicated body and can't get predictable results. Just like hypoxia testing in the first place, the only way to understand what low oxygen levels do to each person is to test and see. So please kids, don't cut off your own oxygen. Let NASA do it for you!
Of course, there'll be paperwork.
Top Image: Apollo 13. Lower image: US Navy