Griff Pugh, exercise physiology and the Olympics
This note was written by Frank Norman and was first published in the 2011/12 Mill Hill Essays.
Griff Pugh (1909-1994) worked at NIMR from 1950 until he retired in 1975. He was a physiologist as well as a mountaineer and expert skier. This combination of talents led him into a career of research into the physiological effects of altitude, temperature and exertion, combining field and laboratory research.
Pugh conducted studies on the impact of the environment on human physiology and performance during several notable expeditions, including the successful 1953 British Himalayan Expedition to Mt. Everest. Indeed, his research contributed to the success of that expedition.
In preparation for Britain’s participation in the 1968 Olympic Games, Pugh studied six long distance runners for one month in Mexico City, at an altitude of 2270 m. The intention was: (i) to measure the effect of this altitude on the performance of 3-mile runners; (ii) to see what improvement, if any, could be obtained by acclimatization; and (iii) to investigate possible risks associated with extreme athletic stress at such an altitude.
Pugh concluded that “an athlete’s chances of success in international games at an altitude of 2270 m would depend to an important degree on his response to hypoxia and the time allowed for acclimatization”. He also predicted correctly that the altitude would make endurance events slower, but would be an advantage for events which needed a brief but intense effort, such as sprinting.