Higher or Hotter? Doctoral Candidate Searches for Ways to Get Used To Altitudes Quicker

summit of mountain range.

Getting your body used to a high altitude takes time. Or does it? That’s the question Courtney Wheelock is trying to answer.

Wheelock is a second-year PhD student in the Department of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences (ENS). Her research, and ultimately her dissertation, looks at whether heat acclimation, which takes less time than altitude acclimation, might be a good substitute if someone needs to quickly get used to a high altitude.

Courtney Wheelock.

Wheelock calls it “cross acclimation” between a hot environment and hyperbaric (high altitude) exposure. The theory, she says, “is that heat acclimation might improve conditioning in high altitudes.” Wheelock is studying the idea at a specific height of 8,000 feet above sea level, roughly the altitude of Afghanistan. Once you get above 2500 feet, she explains, physical performance declines in people who aren’t acclimated.

Typically, people can spend years getting acclimated, but what if someone is in the military or is an elite athlete, someone who needs to travel somewhere and get acclimated quickly? Getting used to a hotter environment—heat acclimation—is “faster and cheaper, and could be a reasonable substitute for people who don’t have the opportunity to altitude acclimate,” Wheelock said.

Wheelock, who has been diving for 11 years, initially was interested in dive physiology by way of underwater science. “I actually considered a lot of avenues. I shadowed sport medicine doctors and athletic trainers, then helped in a research lab.” She decided on her current path once she examined the existing research and found the resources in the ENS department to explore a range of environments. She can explore what happens in hot or cold environments in the department’s environmental chamber, and can simulate environments of different heights in the hypobaric chamber.

Wheelock in lab.

“Several cross acclimations are possible,” she said, “but the resources here make it possible to step into a newer kind of research.” Wheelock has just started collecting data for her dissertation project, which will consist of one large study with independent sub aims. Her main aim is to determine if heat acclimation improves physical performance at high altitudes. A sub aim might be determining the mechanisms of exactly how performance is improved.

“We’ll be taking blood samples to measure biomarkers, and we’ll compare those, as well,” Wheelock explained. “I’m sure we’ll find surprises in data that we’ll have to go back and analyze.” Wheelock’s primary mentor is ENS Chair David Hostler, PhD. ENS Assistant Professor Riana Pryor, PhD, is also helping with Wheelock’s study.

“The department is super collaborative, and I can get feedback from professors with a wide variety of backgrounds.” Interestingly, one of her favorite courses was grant writing and getting funded, which she said most undergraduate or even master’s students don’t learn about.

Wheelock said she has always been interested in knowing how the body works in order to adapt and push past what it might be capable of. Whether it’s elite athletes, divers, emergency responders or others, she’s fascinated with how the human body works, “especially in environments we’re not supposed to be in.”

“There are so many different avenues in research that it’s mind-blowing,” Wheelock said. “For example, I keep learning about researchers in just one biomarker I’m studying. Human performance is a broad interest of mine, but narrow enough that I can follow where it leads me.”