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It’s on the third of 10 hills on the stationary bike that my heart starts to pound heavy in my chest. My legs feel sluggish—in fact, my whole body is growing lethargic, and I’m a little lightheaded, too. I finish the short climb and step off to sip some water before completing the second part of the circuit: 10 medicine ball slams with a 15-pounder.
I’m in the midst of the second of three segments of my afternoon workout at Traverse Fitness, and normally I wouldn’t feel this tired already. I look up at the screen across the room to stare down the culprit: Though I’m in Denver, I’m currently working out at 10,610 feet. There’s six percent less oxygen available to me, which is why my body is struggling more than usual.
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Traverse, located on South Broadway, houses one of only about a dozen Altitude Training Studios in the country. The typical-looking workout space contains barbells, Skillrun treadmills, Keiser resistance machines, free weights, and bikes. It’s what you can’t see that’s unique: A complex system that controls the air, so you can sweat it out in either a low-oxygen (good for improving cardiovascular performance) or high-oxygen (to help you up your endurance and strength) environment without hopping in your car. Its range extends from sea level all the way up to 20,000 feet.
“To obtain optimal performance, you train at altitude,” says Kris Peters, co-founder of Traverse and a coach at the gym. “People love to do 14ers, they love to do hikes, they want to go camping, and if you can have them enjoy their experience without getting sick or lightheaded and just feeling more accomplished, the altitude room is the way to make that happen.”
Mount Everest summit wannabes train at Traverse, as do people prepping for major backpacking trips or ultra runs. But you don’t have to be a capital-A athlete to try a class. Altitude training is good for your general well-being, and improves your muscle capacity and performance over time.
Traverse, which opened in November, also offers regular HIIT classes, as well as a co-working space and recovery zone stocked with Normatec compression boots, foam rollers, and Theraguns. Peters says members can burn up to 300 more calories in the altitude studio than during HIIT workouts.
When I walked in the room for my first high-elevation class, Peters laid out a workout plan that felt familiar as someone who (pre-pandemic) attended a lot of bootcamp-style classes: a series of upper-body weight exercises (chest presses, rows, lat pulls, etc.); the aforementioned bike segment; and a circuit on-and-off the treads that included sled pushes, banded side steps, and weighted core moves.
I felt strong during the weight portion. The Keiser system relies on compressed air, so the push and pull motions carry the same resistance, which puts less strain on your joints and is a boon for someone like me who has bum shoulders from two decades of competitive volleyball. As soon as cardio entered the picture, though, I felt it. When I stepped onto the tread to begin my first set of 75-pound sled pushes, the work felt impossible. I sweat through my supposedly moisture-wicking tank and audibly sighed with relief when I reached the ab portion because at least I could sit down for a second.
When the class ended, though, and my heart rate slowly came down, I felt something different: accomplishment. I hadn’t pushed my body that hard since the onset of the pandemic (I slowly began getting back to in-person classes over the summer). It was a confidence boost to have reached what seemed like a point of failure and to have kept pushing.
When I returned a week later to test out a sea-level class, I figured I’d coast.
Coach Rachel Elery planned a four-round partner workout that felt just as hard as my 10,000-foot class. Except that the sets of box jumps she asked us to do—after some heavy barbell moves—didn’t leave my lungs gasping for oxygen. And I felt like I could recover in between each of the 10 circuits of pull-ups, push-ups, and air squats…just enough, that is, to do them again.
There was an obvious difference in how I responded to the two workouts, and that’s one of the coolest aspects of the studio: It forces everyone to pay attention to how their bodies handle different stressors—a lesson that can make that long hike or backcountry ski trip you’ve had on your bucket list not only more feasible, but safer.
The best outcome came a few days later, though: During a Peloton class at home, I not only set a personal best output, but I also felt less breathless and fatigued than I ever had on the bike. I felt superhuman.
There are classes in the Altitude Training Studio every weekday, though times vary. The 45-minute sessions are held at 5:15 a.m., 6:30 a.m., 7:45 a.m., 4:15 p.m., or 5:30 p.m., depending on the day. Generally, Tuesdays and Thursdays are held at sea level; the high-altitude days gradually increase in elevation as the week goes on (so Fridays will be higher elevation than Mondays). Traverse offers a free first class for new gym-goers. 2449 S. Broadway, 303-733-0303, traversefitness.com