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Hungry for more stories on science, culture and technology?Check out Brain Food: Insights and Discoveries from Northern Arizona. From ground breaking scientific research to global music projects, Brain Food profiles some of the unique projects happening in the region and the interesting people behind them. While there are no new episodes of Brain Food, we will continue to maintain the archive here.

Brain Food: Measuring The Effects Of High Altitude Training On Elite Athletes

KNAU/Bonnie Stevens

Flagstaff has long been a training destination for world class athletes. The high altitude makes their bodies produce more red blood cells and absorb more oxygen, which in turn builds their endurance and speed. Canadian exercise physiologist Trent Stellingwerff wants to know what else happens when elite athletes train at 7,000 feet. 

"There are 3 or 4 key things we're looking for", Stellingwerff says. "One is impact of iron on red blood cell production. Second would be impact of energy balance on bone mineral density and injury and illness rate, and then the impact of training load because we're also assessing how much people train and don't train and what that does on red blood cells."

Stellingwerff is a researcher in the largest-ever altitude study on athletes. He's working with 45 of the world's fastest endurance runners, who've gathered to train at Northern Arizona University. 27 year old Jessica O'Connell of British Columbia is ranked 22nd in the world in the 5,000 meter race. 

Credit KNAU/Bonnie Stevens
Endurance runner Jessica O'Connell of British Columbia trains at NAU.

"I've seen the nutrition data so far", O'Connell says, "and I realized I was not eating as many carbs as I need, which was surprising to me because I feel like I eat a fairly normal diet, but that's something I'll look at once I get home to make sure I'm getting all the energy that I need."

The data informs O'Connell and Stellingwerff about deficiencies in minerals and vitamins. They can identify gaps in nutrition, training and even sleep patterns. Stellingwerff says that could make the difference between a super-fast athlete and an Olympic champion. 

Brain Food is produced by KNAU, Arizona Public Radio.