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!

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