Friday, November 14, 2014

I Got CUBED at Austin R3: Whole Body Cryotherapy and NormaTec Compression Boots

Massage therapist Shae Connor recently opened Austin R3 in the Lake Creek Office Park near 183 and Lake Line. R3 (pronounced “R Cubed” for you English majors out there) stands for Recover, Relax, Reboot. I made the trek out there to try out two recovery modalities that were new to me and might be of interest to long-course triathletes during peak training months. She called it the “Freeze and Squeeze”.


The centerpiece of the facility is the whole body cryochamber, direct from Poland, which envelops the athlete/patient in swirling vapors of nitrogen gas at just-above liquid nitrogen temperatures (around -200F) for 1.5-3 minutes. After reading and signing a waiver, I removed all metal jewelry from the chin down (Shae says she has no issues with her lip ring and earrings in the chamber), and all my clothes (bras almost always have some metal in them) except for my skivvies. Beefy mittens and fuzzy slippers are provided. After hopping in the chamber, Shae boosted my head up above the rim so I could continue breathing oxygen (instead of pure nitrogen), and turned on the gas. First timers get 1.5 minutes of skin-chilling cold, while the more experienced get 2-3 minutes, which is correlated with greater benefits. But safety first in my case.

Whole body cryotherapy (WBC) was first developed 30-40 years ago to treat rheumatoid diseases (like arthritis), but has also found use by movie stars for improving their skin (boosts collagen production) and by athletes to speed muscle recovery by decreasing inflammation. Frequent sessions may be required to see results, and the jury is still out on whether WBC is more effective at decreasing muscle damage and soreness post-workout/injury than less expensive cold treatments like ice packs and ice baths (like science? View free review article here). A few facilities around Austin have chambers. If you go, make sure to choose a facility that has certified staff like Austin R3 and a good safety record: in healthy subjects, the treatment is not intrinsically dangerous, but getting into the chamber with metal or wet skin/clothes on can cause major frostbite problems.

Cryotherapy uses -240F air to chill the skin to 30 degrees, but it is not a deeply penetrating cold -- it only goes 0.5 mm deep. However, this effect still drives blood from the extremities and skin to the major internal organs because the brain perceives the extreme cold as a life-threatening condition. The blood is highly filtered and oxygenated while bathing the organs. When the body re-warms after the treatment, blood vessels redilate, and the cleaned and oxygenated blood returns to the arms, legs and joints, refreshing them and allowing the athlete to recover faster from a workout. Check out this clip from the Discovery Channel:

Austin R3 claims the following for cryotherapy: reduces inflammation; relieves chronic pain, arthritis and migraines; decreases stress, anxiety, depression; improves circulation and detoxes the body; improves skin conditions like psoriasis and boosts collagen production; athletes can train harder and recover faster. The treatment may also increase metabolic rate in the short term, burning 500-800 calories, and helping you sleep hard the night after receiving it. See their site for more.

My experience: I visited Austin R3 on a day with a high in the 30s so I was already pretty used to being cold. I found the cold air to be really refreshing, but yes, quite cold. I’ve had my share of skin-numbing cold experiences after spending several winters in Chicago without a car, but this was not like that -- it was a "surrounding" but not a penetrating cold like an ice bath. I don’t recall shivering, but I was still pretty relieved when the 1.5 minutes were up! Because I immediately had a NormaTec session, I can’t say if my legs were less heavy when I left because of the NormaTec or the cryotherapy. I didn’t notice an excessive appetite or particularly sound sleep afterwards. Since data show that maximum benefits are achieved with 2-2.5 minutes of treatment, maybe I just wasn’t in there long enough. If I go again, I’ll update this post.

The other thing that I most wanted to try at Austin R3 was the NormaTec compression boots. Anyone who flipped open a triathlon magazine in 2014 saw an ad for these things since it is the "official recovery system of USA Triathlon", and I have also seen them demo’d at a couple expos for big races like Austin 70.3. The boots are a five-zone air-driven compression system from the feet all the way up the legs. Compression begins at the feet, and gradually works up the leg, driving fluid from the feet upwards. Shae set me up on setting 5 of 7, which was pretty intense, but as soon as I pushed the easy chair back and the boots started to compress my legs, I started to relax and feel good. The hot Yerba Mate tea in my hand that Shae brought me after my “Freeze” experience might have also helped! The boots stay inflated throughout the session, but the zone that is pulsing or holding varies over time. Because I was done with my workouts for the day, I had a 30 minute “recovery” session. Pre-workout treatments are 10-15 minutes.

So how does it work, and why is it a good thing? While the heart pushes blood out into the extremities via your arteries, there is no “heart” in your feet or hands that pushes that blood back to your heart – instead the action of your limb muscles pushes the blood back through your veins through a series of one-way valves. A proper cool-down after a workout or race can help a lot in making sure this fluid return happens. But as anyone who has had puffy ankles or swollen calves knows, sometimes this system is not up to the job. Providing gravity or additional muscle compression (massage, compression socks) can help with fluid return. The "Sequential Pulse Technology" of the NormaTec boots provides a much more effective way of doing the same thing, and therefore speed recovery of the legs after a tough workout. I walked into the NormaTec room with tired and sore legs – 2 lifting sessions and a hill run in the past three days had me beat. After the treatment, my legs (but not my glutes – that’s a separate NormaTec contraption!) felt totally back to normal.  Thumbs up!

Based on this limited experience and testimonials from dozens of pro triathletes such as Craig Alexander and Chrissie Wellington, as well as pro basketball, soccer and hockey players, I can certainly recommend the NormaTec system to rejuvenate tired legs. If you'd like to invest in your own system, it'll set you back about $1800. Or you can visit Shae for $30/30 minute instead. Well worth considering after your longest workouts if you're preparing for Ironman or a marathon!

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Endurance sport fueling -- Know your options

When you begin to take on races longer than 5k’s and train hard for 1.5+ hrs at a stretch, you will find that your performance is greatly boosted by taking in calories during your race/workout vs. water alone. This is true because when you work your muscles hard enough to require a fairly high proportion of glucose as fuel (vs. fat, which is a “slower” fuel), your stores run low – there is only so much glucose stored within each of your muscle cells, and after that they rely on glucose from your liver (which is also needed to power your brain) or protein breakdown to supply the quick energy they need. A little shot of sugar can bring back your motivation, energy level and even your ability to think better!

Endurance athletes are not all the same when it comes to fueling needs or their ability to use different types of fuels without suffering from GI upset. In general GI upset is more noticeable either for short, very intense efforts when digestion is very difficult or in very long events such as an Ironman where any number of things can go wrong with your fueling, hydration and electrolyte supplementation over the course of the day. Digestion and absorption rates are key. How quickly will the food leave your stomach? Is it absorbed effectively, or does it get fermented by your gut bacteria, resulting in gas? Macronutrient composition, the amount of water you drink along with the food (concentration), and how your gut works will all influence how well a particular fuel form or recipe will agree with you.

Ok, so what are the options, and what are they good for? We’ll start with products with the highest water content and move to lowest.
  • Sports drinks. The ratio of carb grams to water milliliters for optimal absorption is thought to be 4:100 (4%) – Skratch Labs and Osmo Hydration products are made to be used in this way. This ratio comes out to 112.5 calories in a standard 24 oz bike bottle. In hot conditions it can be fairly easy to consume 24 or more ounces of fluid in an hour on a bike, allowing an athlete to fuel exclusively by this method if he/she requires only about 100 calories per hour. Otherwise a more concentrated solution (or the addition of solid food as Skratch recommends) will be required. Most bottled sports drinks, including Ironman Perform, are 6-8%, and of course powdered sports drink mix can be made to any concentration desired. Some sports drinks (Hammer Nutrition makes two of these) contain a small amount of protein – these are intended to be used for sessions lasting more than 2.5 hrs when your muscles may start to use amino acids as fuel in addition to glucose.
  • Baby food in pouches. These little fruit puree pouches, which have a similar shape to gel packs, are pretty popular amongst endurance athletes! They contain only about 60 calories per pouch because of their water content, so plan on stuffing a fair number of them into your jersey pocket for a 2-3 hour event. You will want to wash them down with a bit of water. Be mindful of the macronutrient content of the one you choose – the more fat/protein/fiber in there, the longer it will sit in your stomach, so plan to minimize these. Also, baby food does not typically have sodium, so you will need to add this from another source (ie, salt tabs or sports drink) if it’s hot out and you’re sweating.
  • Energy gels. Gels typically come 100 calories of easy-to-absorb carbs to a pack in a variety of flavors for fruit-lovers as well as fruit-haters. Peanut butter gels have popped up recently that taste just like PB from the jar. There are also gels made with chia seeds for a jammy texture (Huma), with a fig paste base (Reload), or just honey (Honey Stinger Classic). There’s pretty much something for everyone, and unlike sports drinks and baby food, it’s easy to find a gel with caffeine in it if you find that to be helpful while racing (I do!). Gels are concentrated, so they require water – not just to wash the stickiness out of your mouth or off your hand, but to help your gut absorb the carbs too. Don’t skimp! If you’re running, it’s best to finish consuming a gel just before you arrive at an aid station so you can toss the empty packet and grab some water to wash it down as you jog through. As an aid station volunteer I have seen folks wash a gel down with sports drink – I don’t recommend this! The gel is enough calories for one dose, and should be chased with plain water to avoid GI upset down the road.
  • Energy chews. If you like gummy bears, energy chews are awesome. They are not sticky like gels, come in a variety of fruity flavors, and also can be found with and without caffeine for an extra boost. They can be a bit difficult to handle while riding (not all packaging is convenient to use), and when you’re working very hard, chewing can be difficult. But it’s also possible to stick one in your cheek like a chipmunk, and let it slowly dissolve. Just make sure you know how many chews you need to consume to reach 100 calories – it may be more than you think – and don’t forget to continue to drink water as you eat them.
  • Regular food. If you’re riding your bike over long distances at low to moderate intensity, there’s no reason not to use real food as a fuel. Because you are staying aerobic and are not bouncing up and down like a runner, your gut can tolerate something besides liquids/gels, and chewing won’t interfere with your breathing. The gurus of what to eat on the bike are the Skratch Labs chefs, Biju Thomas and Allen Lim. I highly recommend their two cookbooks for great ideas for bike-friendly foods and how to wrap them for easy eating. These vary from rice balls to grits cakes to hand pies to waffles. If it’s got lotsa carbs and just a little fat, protein and fiber, it’s good on the bike! Remember to hydrate effectively when fueling with regular food. If you use a sports drink for this instead of plain water, remember to combine the calories from the drink and the food to find the total calories you can tolerate per hour at your desired level of intensity.

Consider the intensity of the event you are planning, and then pick a few options that might work for you. Try them out in training under conditions similar to your race (temperature, effort level, frequency of fueling/hydrating) and see how you feel both during and after the session. If you experience tiredness/sleepiness, you likely need more calories. If you feel full, you are either over-feeding or using a fuel with too much protein, fat or fiber, causing it to sit in your stomach for too long. If you get dehydrated or need to pee a lot, adjust your hydration plan. 

Please add a comment about your favorite fuel(s) or a time when your choice of fueling didn't work for you like you expected!

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Thrive during the long tri season ahead – Sustainability, consistency, periodization

Here in Austin the triathlon race season stretches from early April to late October with many opportunities to race at sprint to Ironman distances in between. That's a long season of training and racing! How does a person with a family, a job, a life, manage to set PRs and not burn out? Sustainability, consistency, and periodization.

Sustainability – Be realistic about how much time you have to spend not just on actual workouts and races, but on the preparation, the commuting, the showering, the refueling, the visiting with teammates, the shopping online and in the real world for gear, interacting with your coach, etc. Then figure out how to use this time as effectively as possible by organizing your gear, finding ways to eliminate commute time, or doing more interval training to pack more punch into less time.

At one time I could ride directly from my home to routes on safe roads in nearly any direction. I kept my cycling gear in a heap in the garage. Now I have to drive to the start of most of my outdoor rides, so I purchased a 5 gallon bucket at Home Depot, and all my ride gear lives in it. When I take my gloves, head band and vest out of the wash, they go right back in the bucket with my shoes, helmet, chain lube, Road ID, sunglasses, sunscreen, etc. All I have to do is get dressed, pump up my tires, grab my fuel, phone and water bottles and pack my bike and bucket into the car.

If you’re a parent, you may need to train at odd hours (early mornings, late at night) to avoid disrupting your kids’ schedule. Just make sure that you are still able to get enough sleep, or your routine will not be sustainable. Making sure your workouts are focused and short will help – a bike trainer can be a life-saver in these cases since it keeps you close to home and allows you to get more quality work done in a short period of time using interval workouts. Keeping your sights set on shorter distance events that require much less training time is also helpful.

Consistency/habituation – It has been said that what defines you is not what you do every once in a while, but what you do every day (or frequently). You will not become a better swimmer or runner or cyclist if you only practice that discipline once a week or less! And you will not have a stronger core if you only work on it only now and then. 

As you reflect back on last season or forward to the one ahead, decide what part of your training you wish to change. What do you want to do better? Set your goals, and then work steadily toward them. You will become a better swimmer if you find out how to fix a stroke flaw or two and then practice swimming correctly 3-4 times a week, even if just for 20 minutes after finishing another workout at your gym. You will get stronger glutes for running and climbing on your bike if you learn several ways to strengthen them, and then work on these 3-4 times a week with a bit of rest in between when you feel you need it. You will become a better runner if you increase your mileage from 6-10 mi/week spread over 2 runs to 15 or 20 mi/week spread over 3-4 runs, assuming proper form and recovery. I like to use a check-list in Excel that has all the items I want to do every day like roll-out and stretching, as well as those I want to do frequently like core work, squats, lunges, etc. Every night I check in with this list and do what I can to check things off for that day. I also plan ahead for the next day before I head off to bed to make sure I know how I will structure my day to get those things done.

Knowing if you prefer to train with a group or on your own either with or without a coach can also help with consistency. If you attempt to train on your own but really prefer to train with a group, you may find your ability to get work done every day to be difficult, even with a coach to guide and motivate you. Your preference may be different for each sport. For instance, you may love to run alone but prefer to hit the road on your bike with a group to feel more safe. Try out both environments, and be realistic about which suits you best.

Periodization -- Because we all don’t have the time or energy to train everything well all the time, we have to pick and choose what to emphasize at different points in the season. You may decide that your pre-season will include much more strength training than your regular session. You may pick one or two core strength moves from your pre-season routine of 7 or 8 that you want to continue to do throughout the season without having to spend a lot of time on it. If you have an issue with open water swimming, you may want to focus heavily on that one month, keeping running and cycling at maintenance level, and then switch focus for the next month. You might not swim, bike or run at all for a while during the off-season to make room for other pursuits like hiking, cross-country skiing, rock-climbing, yoga, etc to keep your body and mind fresh. Decide how you will approach your build-up to your goal events, and choose what to emphasize at different points in your season so that you can build and maintain strength, speed and endurance in all three sports as needed.

So this season as you think about what events you want to do, be realistic about how much time you can spend on your training on a consistent basis while still getting enough sleep and time for the rest of your life, adjust your training schedule to optimize your consistency and motivation, and then figure out how shift your emphasis on the swim/bike/run/strength elements of triathlon throughout the season to keep your training moving you forward and also fitting into the rest of your life.

If you need help balancing your training and figuring out how to best use your training time, contact me for a consultation: casey at