Squash player Neil Stone-Wigg is preparing to take part in a tournament at 6,000 feet in South Africa by training in a high-altitude mask.
He leaves for South Africa on Tuesday to take part in the Over-55s category in the 2016 World Squash Federation’s World Masters in Johannesburg, which runs from Sept. 24-30. Also heading to Johannesburg is Janet Sairsingh, who will represent Cayman in the Women’s Over-45s division.
Stone-Wigg, wearing his altitude mask, has been doing court sprints, called “ghosting,” to get his body ready for the tournament.
“There is a logic behind the mask,” said Stone-Wigg. “It not only gets your lungs familiar with less oxygen, but more importantly, it allows you to ‘train your brain.’ Because as it gets starved of oxygen, it wants to switch off – so by training with the mask on … and then setting myself mathematical equations to complete between each ghosting set, I can force my brain to keep working for me. Then, once I can control my brain like that in training, the theory is that in a match I can control my brain to not switch off.”
He has been training and playing with the mask for about five weeks, since returning from the Caribbean Area Squash Association tournament in Trinidad. He admits it is taking some getting used to: “I feel self conscious with it, the noise of my heavy breathing can be heard throughout the squash club.”
Stone-Wigg arrived in Cayman three-and-a-half years ago as the reigning Over-50s Irish champion, playing regular home internationals against the No. 1 players in England, Scotland and Wales.
Since arriving in Cayman, he has been a regular on the squash scene, frequently winning in his age group, and competing with all age groups.
He has finished second in his age category in the Caribbean Squash Championship in the past two years.
He grew up in Kenya, at an altitude of 7,000 feet, and says that during his teenage years he got to understand the differences in altitude and the benefits of being “altitude trained.”
“Going back and forward to school in the U.K. meant I could get ultra-fit in the holidays and then take advantage when back at school in Scotland. We also had some top athletes visit where we lived, such as Jonah Barrington (squash), just for that altitude training,” he said.
He compares wearing the altitude mask with using a “slightly restricted [dive] regulator.”
“I wear it not just in training, but in the evenings, etc. While I’m actually performing my exercises/playing, I can put it out of my mind to a large degree. It is the recovery period when you want to fill those lungs up quickly with fresh oxygen that your body starts panicking. So you have to reduce your expectations of getting that much oxygen and recover more slowly,” he says.
He plays his first match on Saturday, which gives him three days to recover from jet lag and to acclimatize.
Sairsingh, who is president of the Caribbean Area Squash Association, will also play her first match on Saturday.
She left Cayman late last week, stopping off in Uganda on her way to South Africa.
“I am linking up with friends who played squash for Uganda at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow to do some training and for my body to adjust to the altitude,” she told the Cayman Compass in an email.
Unlike Stone-Wigg, she has not been training in an altitude mask, and says the higher altitude will be a challenge.
“By the time I thought about (using an altitude mask), it was too late to order and have it arrive on time,” she said.
“It is difficult to breathe at altitude, especially for us at sea level. It takes the average person about a week for their body to adjust. Because the air is so thin, when exercising it feels like you are not getting enough oxygen and your body is fatigued much quicker than normal. Therefore, if you are able to simulate the same feel when wearing an altitude mask, it makes a big difference in your game.”
She started training earlier this year, but had a setback in June when she tore a calf muscle. After extensive physiotherapy, she had recovered sufficiently to compete in the Senior Caribbean Squash Championships in Trinidad last month and placed second in her age group.
Two days after returning home from Trinidad, however, she injured the same leg and has not been able to train since.
“This has affected my confidence as I am tentative on my right leg when pushing for quick movements on court,” she says.
But she is still determined to play in Johannesburg. “I don’t give up easily. Therefore, I am going to give it my best shot and make use of the training in Uganda as a warm up before the event.”
She turns 50 in December and had set herself the challenge of getting into “the best shape of my life,” and enter the World Masters for the first time.
“I am looking forward to the event, and I have worked hard despite the setback with my injury,” she said.
Sairsingh and Stone-Wigg will be among a record 951 competitors in the 2016 World Masters Squash Championships. The biennial event, which started in 1983, is expected to feature 19 men’s and women’s events, from Over-35s to Over-80s.