Endurance, performance and time. These are the holy-grail for any Olympic athlete. To possess even the smallest advantage in these areas could mean Gold. And everyone wants Gold.
So if you can't get the edge from performance enhancing drugs, what else can you do to push ahead of the competition? We've all heard about the advances in hardware that athletes can use to help them attain better performances — we're talking specialized swimwear, carbon fiber bike frames and boat shells and the like. We also know that athletes train with the most high tech items at their disposal, meaning suits with motion sensors and 3D cameras everywhere to help map the optimum performance.
But to get that edge, some athletes are turning towards some pretty strange training techniques. Instead of tweaking their tools, they are tweaking themselves, courtesy of some odd new methods. So much so, in fact, that this stuff sounds a lot like science fiction, and is rapidly becoming a reality in order to go for the Gold.
Did you know there is a cryotherapy chamber at the Olympics? It's a device that gradually takes participants down to the insane temperature of -220 degrees Fahrenheit. One immediately thinks of poor Han Solo being frozen in carbonite — not the best preparation for physical activity — so why would anyone willingly freeze themselves? In a word — performance.
The practice of cryotherapy has taken off and "studios," as they're called, can be found around the globe. However, researchers in Poland have been perfecting the technique and opened a cryotherapy center in their Olympic Health Center in 2000.
Those who are game are suited up in special socks, underwear and ear protection to avoid frostbite. The process begins with acclimation: entering a cold-but-not-cryo-cold chamber for a few seconds; entering a colder one after that; and then finally the big kahuna, the cryotherapy chamber.
Some of the toughest athletes in the world call it the "chamber of horrors." That's because taking your body down to extreme temperatures has some interesting effects. Your blood vessels become more narrow, and both your blood flow and metabolism slows down. Physically, you probably feel burning or pins and needles as your body reacts.
Those who stick it out for the two-minute sessions reap the benefits. When you leave the chamber, your veins expand to four times their normal size, pumping tons of oxygenated blood back through the body and helping to heal damaged or overworked tissue and joints. Plus, your endorphins have kicked in from the trauma of being in the cold, and they rush around the body with a pain-killing effect.
With that kind of quick recoverability, it's easy to see why everyone from weight lifters, race walkers and swimmers are using the futuristic chamber at the Games.
And all this time we felt sorry for Han Solo being frozen!
Here's a video on the official Olympic website that shows the chamber.
In some places around the world, people are willingly tucking themselves into egg-shaped pods. They're not crazy, nor are they trying to cosplay as spaceships. These pods are serious business; they're known as CVAC pods ("CVAC" for "Cyclic Variations in Adaptive Conditioning"), and they help athletes reach their peak performance.
These space-age pods have been a training method used on the sly for a while, but were recently outed by none other than the 2012 Australian Open winner, tennis champion Novak Djokovic, who willingly climbs in to boost his endurance.
Inside the pod, the user experiences changes in barometric pressure, temperature and air density, not unlike the simulation of high altitude you'd get from a hyperbaric chamber.
The CVAC takes a slightly more high tech approach however. It uses a computer-controlled valve and vacuum pump to simulate high altitude and compresses the muscles, but in this case it occurs at rhythmic intervals.
The effect on the body is something like a high intensity workout where your blood will carry more oxygen to your muscles. The CVAC manufacturers also claim it reduces lactic acid and could even stimulate mitochondrial biogenesis and stem cell production. The manufacturer recommends spending 20 minutes in the pod three times a week to see improved performance and endurance.
While some Olympic athletes who use the CVAC pod are pretty cagey about using the odd egg shaped chamber, Djokovic isn't shy about talking about it. He told the Wall Street Journal: "I think it really helps — not with muscle but more with recovery after an exhausting set. It's like a spaceship. It's very interesting technology."
Could the funny little egg really make a huge difference in performance? Who knows — but there are enough people that seem willing to try it to lift their game.
From where we sit — which is not in a pod — when you start talking about this thing possibly creating stem cells, we start to wonder if it is going to one day just start spitting out athlete clones.
In today's sporting events, winning can often come down to a hundredth of a second. So if someone dangled a method in front of you that promised to shave time off your Olympic performance, you'd likely go for it.
"It" is called remote ischemic preconditioning (RIPC). It sounds complicated, but athletes from Team Canada and Team Britain are reported to have tried it in training.
The technique, which is still in the early stages of development, involves attaching blood pressure cuffs to the arms or legs of athletes and inflating them for up to five minutes. Doctors who are studying RIPC believe it works by limiting the buildup of blood lactate levels — the substance that causes muscle pain and cramps.
A British study showed a 30-second improvement for runners in five kilometer time trials, and a Canadian study showed a seven-second improvement over a kilometer in swim trials. Let's face it, those are numbers some athletes would die for. But this new technique, which originated from experimental treatments of heart attacks, comes with strict warnings about your average joe tinkering with blood flow.
Dr. Greg Wells, a physiologist at the University of Toronto and an author of their RIPC studies cautioned in an interview with The Toronto Star: "Restricting blood flow is dangerous. You can really hurt yourself if it is not done well."
Duly noted. This is one training technique that is still in a very early stage of discovery and whether the performance enhancements are worth the risks are still being studied.
In fact, how the procedure made the jump from treating heart attack victims to boosting an athlete's performance is one detail that remains missing from the story. If it leads to gold for the teams that trained with the technique, we bet we'll be hearing a lot more about it.
So keep an eye on Team Canada, who apparently did experiment with it in training. If they start turning in stellar numbers, you'll be in on part of their training secret.