Out of the Freezer and Into the Fire

Posted by Filed Under: Elite Running, Science and Research

In case you haven’t heard, it’s going to be hot at the Beijing Olympics next summer. We’re not talking a bit uncomfortable. To athletes pushing themselves to their absolute physical and mental limits, it’s going to feel hotter than a well-greased metal frying pan in the devil’s own kitchen. In other words, sizzling hot.

The participants at this year’s World Athletics Championship in Osaka, Japan got a taste of the steamy times ahead. While the sprinters may be more welcoming of the conditions, the heat and humidity left some athletes floored (literally!) and made it impossible for some marathoners to even finish the race, never mind run their personal best performances. At 2:15:59, the men’s marathon winning performance by Kenyan Luke Kibet was the slowest in the championship’s history.


Fast-forward to next summer. It’s probably safe to assume most athletes are preparing for exertion in summertime China, especially those who remember the scorching temperatures at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. One possible method participants can try to maintain their athletic potential against the heated demands of the climate is to pre-cool before the competition. The theory seems to be that the lower the body temperature is to begin with, the more initial capacity it has to deal with heat. Pre-cooling widens the gap between the body’s starting temperature and the temperature at which it says “no, this isn’t working for me anymore, you’re going to have to cool off and fast!” When the body’s cooler at the start, it needs to send less blood to the skin to cool off. It can then circulate more of its blood to the hard-working and much-deserving muscles.

Sports scientists Drs. Sandra Ückert and Winfried Joch at the Universities of Dortmund and Münster in Germany recently looked at the effect of short term exposure of extreme cold on an athlete’s performance. In the experiment, they asked test athletes to sit inside a cryochamber for two and half minutes at a teeth-chattering, bring out the hot chocolate and light the campfire because it’s cold in here! -120ºC. After the chill-out session, the participants completed an endurance run at 90 percent of their maximum capacity. The announcement does not report whether they suffered any effects from frostbite (we have to hope not), but does indicate favorable results in the areas of blood circulation and oxygen supply. Similarly, in another study, the scientists found using an ice-cooling vest 20 minutes before a run improved performance.

The cryochamber idea sounds pretty hi-tech and out of reach for some runners, but the study results indicate that athletes might do well to choose some pre-cooling method. For some this could mean wearing a cool vest, for others this could mean a cool bath, damp cloths and ice packs. But perhaps, one day we will see the runners at world class competitions bust out of a line of ventilated freezers at the start gun’s summons. Will the start blocks of today become start “ice” blocks in the future?

About Nora

I am a native Californian currently settled and running my way bit by bit around the South East of England. Besides running, my training activities include biking, hiking, swimming, yoga, and tap dancing in place while in line at the grocery store. I am addicted to photography and run most races with my camera in hand, just in case.

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