Whether you use a pulse oximeter for altitude training or monitoring your recovery, it is a simple and easy-to-use tool that can give you valuable insights.
Although pulse oximeters are ubiquitous in medical settings, only recently have they become available for athletes. These small but powerful devices can give you a snapshot of your body’s ability to process oxygen, which is a key factor in performance if you live or train at altitude, or tend to overtrain. Here we’ll investigate how these devices work, and how you might use them to optimize your performance.
What is a pulse oximeter?
A pulse oximeter is a device that measures blood oxygen levels (oxygen saturation or SpO2) by estimating the percentage of oxygen bound to hemoglobin in the blood. Pulse oximeters are small, portable, non-invasive and painless; they’re so convenient that they’re often used by pilots and people who work or train at high altitudes. Simply clip it to your (or your athlete’s) finger, and it will give you an accurate data reading.
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How does a Pulse Oximeter work?
When oxygen is inhaled into the lungs, it attaches to hemoglobin (a protein in red blood cells). The red blood cells then transport oxygen into the bloodstream, allowing it to be dispersed to tissue. Most of us need about 550 liters of oxygen per day to function, but that volume can double or triple during exercise. As you train, your body will be able to utilize more oxygen, more efficiently.
To find out how much oxygen is in your blood, a pulse oximeter emits light (typically red and infrared) through one side of your finger onto a photodetector on the other side. As it passes through your finger, the light hits your blood cells, and is absorbed differently by the hemoglobin without oxygen (deoxyhemoglobin) than by the hemoglobin with oxygen (oxyhemoglobin). The quality of the light that makes it to the photodetector can tell us how much oxygen is in your blood—normal ranges are typically from 94 percent to 100 percent.
Different oximeters are made for different purposes. Some are designed just for use in hospitals, but others can be more useful for athletic performance.
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Using Pulse-Ox for Altitude Acclimatization
At altitude, where the air is thinner, it is more difficult for your body to get adequate oxygen to your muscles and tissues. For example, if you’re racing or training at 10,000 feet (3000 m), the amount of effective oxygen in the air is about 15 percent (compared to 21 percent at sea level). If you’re used to living at sea level, this change in oxygen availability will kick off a cascade of physiological adaptations, some of which are advantageous no matter where you’re racing.
To start, there will be an increase in your respiratory and heart rates; and the volume of blood ejected from the heart (stroke volume) will be reduced. Over your first 24-48 hours at altitude, blood plasma volume will also be reduced to improve the oxygen-carrying capacity of your blood by volume. These adaptations won’t necessarily feel good—in fact you’ll probably feel like you’re doing more work for less reward.
However, prolonged exposure to altitude will cause your body to increase production of red blood cells with larger hemoglobin, allowing for a partial or full restoration of the blood volume and arterial oxygen content. After four weeks or more, your maximal heart rate response will be lower, as will your peak cardiac output—your blood is carrying more oxygen, so your heart won’t need to pump as fast or hard.
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First published in OxygenAdvantage