Background: Aircraft cabins are pressurised to maximum effective altitudes of 2440 metres, resulting in significant decline in oxygen saturation in crew and passengers. This effect has not been studied in athletes.
Objective: To investigate the degree of decline in oxygen saturation in athletes during long-haul flights.
Methods: A prospective cross-sectional study. National-level athletes were recruited. Oxygen saturation and heart rate were measured with a pulse oximeter at sea level before departure, at 3 and 7 hours into the flight, and again after arrival at sea level. Aircraft cabin pressure and altitude, cabin fraction of inspired oxygen and true altitude were also recorded.
Results: 45 athletes and 18 healthy staff aged between 17 and 70 years were studied on 10 long-haul flights. Oxygen saturation levels declined significantly after 3 hours and 7 hours (3–4%), compared with sea level values. There was an associated drop in cabin pressure and fraction of inspired oxygen, and an increase in cabin altitude.
Conclusions: Oxygen saturation declines significantly in athletes during long-haul commercial flights, in response to reduced cabin pressure. This may be relevant for altitude acclimatisation planning by athletes, as the time spent on the plane should be considered time already spent at altitude, with associated physiological changes. For flights of 10–13 hours in duration, it will be difficult to arrive on the day of competition to avoid the influence of these changes, as is often suggested by coaches.
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