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    The Secret's in the air for Baguio-based MMA fighters

    Nov 8, 2013

    IT'S a sunny Saturday afternoon in Baguio City and members of the Team Lakay mixed martial arts (MMA) team are warming up for their regular 5K run. But this is by no means a regular run considering the route they usually take. Their runs start from the middle point and ends near the peak of Mount Cabuyao — BaguioCity’s highest point. It’s a continuous uphill slope with a mix of paved and rough roads. On their ascent, these guys maintain their focus and manage to keep a steady pace, even with the dropping temperature. It’s no wonder these guys are respected in fight circles for the cardio workhorses that they are. The toughness these guys show is borne of sheer hard work and their ability to maximize the resources their environment presents — the fact that they live and train in high altitude.


    Baguio City is a favorite training spot for elite athletes. Our national team runners and boxers, as well MH guy Manny Pacquiao, have all spent time in the country’s summer capital in the past, saying the city’s altitude (1,524 meters above sea level) adds an edge to their respective preparations. But the local Igorots have known the benefits of high altitude training for centuries.

    “May mga kwento from our great grandfathers na advantage ‘yung tumakbo sa mountains,” says Geje Eustaquio, a Baguio native and flyweight member of Team Lakay who fights for One Fighting Championships. “Kasi ‘yung muscles, nadedevelop [better] compared sa flat terrain.”

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    Fitness science also supports this claim. The higher up you go from sea level (like the lowlands of Manila), the less oxygen is present. Such an environment triggers your body to adapt starting with the increased production of red blood cells and hemoglobin in your blood. “[These] form part of the solid portion of the blood that carries oxygen from the lungs to your working muscles,” says Luigi Bercades, MS, CSCS, a strength and conditioning coach and MH fitness advisor. “Theoretically, the greater the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood, the better [the physical] performance is.”

    Team Lakay coaches have noticed that this is an advantage their fighters carry into the cage after having spent time in their Baguio training camps. “Maganda ang conditioning nila, and mas aggressive sila,” says Mark Sangiao, Team Lakay’s head coach and a former MMA fighter. “Hindi sila natatakot mapagod, at mas kaya nilang dalhin ang laro.”

    Aside from being able to carry more oxygen through your bloodstream, your body also produces less lactate when you train at high altitudes. As a result, it produces more energy efficiently with the oxygen it gets. “Thus, exercise can be maintained for a longer period of time,” Bercades says. He adds that your body also becomes efficient in clearing lactate buildup and uses it as fuel during physical activity that further delays fatigue.

    Nothing tests an MMA fighter’s body better than going the distance. Eustaquio really saw the difference his training made during his last fight after getting his hand raised in a bout that went the full three rounds. “My last fight went for 15 minutes,” he recalls. “Based on my performance, [how I felt after] and what I watched on video, from first to the last round, my intensity was the same.”

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    But the advantages don’t stop with your physical strength and recovery. Training at high altitude also helps you improve your cardiovascular fitness. Bercades says aerobic endurance improves because the blood distributes oxygen more efficiently and results in better ventilation.

    “Ventilation is simply the breathing rate depth. More strength and endurance in your breathing muscles may cause this effect which in turn enhances oxygen transfer to your muscles.” Athletes who have been training at high altitudes notice the difference in their breathing capacity when they go down to sea level. Eustaquio and his Team Lakay teammates experienced this after going on a 400-meter run in Manila. “We have a standard oval in Teachers Camp that we run on every day. Parang ang hirap takbuhin ng isang round,” he says. “Pero pagbaba namin and we train at the Ultra (PSC Oval in Pasig), we run twice around that oval easily. Eight hundred meters there is like 400 in Baguio.”


    But before you go pitching your training camp over in Baguio City or at other high-altitude areas, you should know that a period of acclimatization is necessary. Mark Striegl, an MMA fighter who fights for Pacific X-treme Combat (PX), remembers how it initially affected him.

    “I had my third professional fight in Baguio, [and] three minutes into the fight, I was disoriented. The high altitude definitely affected me,” Striegl says. The reduced amount of oxygen in the area makes any physical activity more intense. Striegl notices this even though he’s now based in Baguio. “Even [something] as simple as walking around areas in Baguio, going to the mall or the grocery, is so tiring.”

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    Aside from letting your body adapt, it’s important to plot how long you intend to train in this type of environment. Training too long may also affect your health. “There is an increased likelihood of illness, most likely due to the suppression of the immune system,” Bercades says. “A possible explanation may be the high-intensity nature of high-altitude training. It can increase adrenaline and cortisol levels, which in turn suppresses immunity.”

    While the increase in red blood cell and hemoglobin production in your blood aids in recovery and endurance, it also makes the blood thicker. “More viscous blood may result in a higher blood pressure,” cautions Bercades. Training incorrectly at high altitudes can be hazardous, but employing smart strategies can help your reap its benefits to unleash your physical performance potential.


    In order to properly acclimatize to high-altitude training, you must first ensure that you are free from any illness. Visit your doctor to check if healthy enough for the grind ahead. Taking the right supplements is key, especially if you’re going to altitudes higher than that of Baguio City (1,800-2,200 meters). Bercades suggests taking an iron supplement, a necessary element in the production of red blood cells and hemoglobin.

    Next, as you start your training, let your body adjust. “Train at a high altitude with a low-intensity workout first,” says Tim Ayson, ISSA, SET, WKC SNC, a strength and conditioning coach and the head trainer at L3F Gym in Paranaque. “Try it out first, and see how your body reacts to the air and go from there.” You can then crank up the intensity and length of your sessions once your body acclimatizes.

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    Even though they are based in Baguio, the thin air is still challenging to members of Team Lakay. “Mahirap talaga, maski [para sa] mga elite fighter. Maski na lagi sila rito, napwepwersa sila,” Sangiao says. Picking the right terrain, especially if you’re into running, is another thing you should consider. And, as with your workouts, progression is key. “Try ninyo muna mag-jog sa flat terrain in Baguio City,” says Sangiao. “Kapag medyo sanay na kayo sa hangin, saka kayo umakyat sa bundok para hindi kayo mabigla.”

    Finally, to maximize the benefits of being at a high altitude, you should set time frames for your training, especially if you normally reside at sea level. “If you’re a competitive athlete, 2-3 months before your major event is good to get the entire benefit of high-altitude training,” Ayson says. Recreational athletes, he adds, are better off doing one-month stints in this environment.

    The important thing is to plot your training for an event you are preparing for. Oxygen is a basic need, and training too long at a place where there’s less of it may do more harm than good. But if you train smart, you’ll unleash the mountain warrior within you in no time. 

    Train like a Warrior

    Have you always wanted to train in mixed martial arts and experience the intensity of being at a high altitude? The following gyms can be your starting point. 

    Fight Corps MMA Gym

    The home base of PXC top featherweight contender Mark 'Mugen' Striegl trains both elite fighters and beginners who want to learn the rudiments of grappling and striking. Striegl himself teaches a number of classes here.

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    Address: Apartment C, Topaz Building 2, Trancoville, Baguio City.

    Phone: 0906-329-4600 fightcorpsmma

    Team Lakay MMA

    The headquarters of the Philippines’ top mixed martial arts team has produced fighters such as One FC fighters Eduard Folayang, Honorio Banario, and Geje Eustaquio, to name a few. They teach the rudiments of wushu-style striking as well as grappling.

    Address: 3rd Floor Auyong Bldg., Kayang Street, Baguio City. LakayMM

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