Heat is now hot

Saturday, June 13th, 2020

Heat is now hot, in the world of athletic training:

Maybe the sauna-loving Finns — who, in addition to topping the rankings in this year’s World Happiness Report, have racked up more than 100 Olympic track and field medals — have been onto something all along.

The origins of the current boom in heat research can be traced back to the 2008 Olympics. University of Oregon physiologist Chris Minson was helping marathoner Dathan Ritzenhein prepare for what was expected to be a sweltering summer in Beijing. Heat-acclimation protocols, which usually involve a week or two of sweaty workouts, are a well-established way of triggering adaptations — increased blood-plasma volume, lower core temperature, higher perspiration rate — that help you perform in the heat. “But I had this niggling fear,” Minson recalls. “What if the race wasn’t hot? What if it was cooler?”

No one knew for sure whether being well-adapted to heat might come with trade-offs, like performing worse in cool conditions. So Minson set up a study with 20 cyclists to find out. The results, published in 2010, sparked a frenzy among sports scientists. Ten days of training in 104-degree heat boosted the cyclists’ VO2 max by 5 percent and improved their one-hour time-trial performance by 6 percent — even when the testing room was kept at a brisk 55 degrees. Suddenly, hot rooms and nonbreathable track suits were being hyped as the poor man’s altitude training.

The initial thinking was that, whereas working out in thin air triggers the formation of oxygen-carrying red blood cells, a main benefit of heat training was an increased volume of blood plasma to ferry red blood cells to your muscles. Whether that plasma boost actually translates to improved athletic performance remains contentious. Carsten Lundby, an endurance expert at Copenhagen University Hospital in Denmark who has studied heat training, is skeptical that simply increasing plasma volume improves performance after just a week or two. However, the resulting dilution of your blood might trigger a natural EPO response to produce new red blood cells, just like altitude training — an idea he’s currently testing with a six-week protocol.

But plasma volume isn’t the only parameter that heat changes. According to Meylan, psychological resilience and altered perception of high temperatures are among the key benefits his players received from heat training. That, in part, is why Canada’s women’s soccer team will likely head to southern Spain or Portugal right before next summer’s World Cup, which will take place in France.

More generally, heat is a shock to the system, generating some of the same cellular responses that exercise and altitude do. For that reason, scientists are now studying its therapeutic benefits, as well as cross-adaptation, the idea that heat training might prepare you for a trip to high elevations, or help you maintain an edge when you return.

A practical example: Last year, three elite steeplechasers visited Minson’s lab three or four times a week to soak in a 105-degree hot tub for roughly 40 minutes, hoping the heat would help sustain the elevated red-blood-cell levels they’d developed during altitude training in Flagstaff, Arizona. Blood tests suggested the approach worked.

Comments

  1. I love the shoutout to my home, Flagstaff, one of the popular high-altitude training centers of the world.

  2. Sam J. says:

    If I remember correctly I was riding across the country and near Flagstaff was the strangest looking mountain I have ever seen. it was purple. It really astonished me. I even pulled off the road tangent to it and picked up some of the rocks. Seems like, it was a long time ago, the rocks were purple and spongy gas aerated. I stopped in flagstaff and it looked like a really nice picturest place.

  3. Sam, yes there are definitely purple mountains here! Sunset Crater is a well-known one, but there are hundreds of cinder cones in this area.

    https://www.azcentral.com/story/travel/arizona/2016/08/22/sunset-crater-volcano-national-monument/88806972/

    The pumice and cinders are sometimes mined, but it is a fairly low-value rock.

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