Saturday, November 13, 2010

Cryosauna a cool ice bath substitute...if you've got cold cash

By Joe Battaglia, Universal Sports

While catching up with Dathan Ritzenhein last Wednesday afternoon the topic of conversation switched to the latest piece of technology that Nike Oregon Project director Alberto Salazar has employed to keep his runners healthy while, maybe, gaining a competitive edge.

"You know how Alberto is with his toys," Ritzenhein said. "You have to see this thing."

So I took him up on the offer.

I met Ritzenhein and Salazar on the sixth floor of Niketown on Saturday morning. Down a narrow hallway and inside a cramped electrical room on the sixth floor above the retain space was the cryosauna, a large metallic cylinder connected to a digital control panel rigged to a liquid nitrogen tank.

Because of prohibitive logistics, Salazar was unable to have the "Space Cabin" installed at the hotel for Ritzenhein before the ING New York City Marathon. Representatives from Millennium Ice Partners, the Texas-based company that manufactures the cryosauna, loaded one onto a truck and drove it to Manhattan from Dallas.

While its arrival may have been quite terrestrial, the Space Cabin has taken the traditional (and painful) post-workout ice bath and teleported it to the future.

Rather than submerging his body into ice and water, which only cools skin temperature to about 50 degrees, Ritzenhein shed his running clothes and stepped inside the padded metallic cylinder wearing little more than underwear and socks. Blasts of air, nitrogen-cooled to minus-170 degrees celsius, rushed in and cooled his skin temp to 30 degrees as he walked in slow circles around the chamber for two and a half minutes.

"It's like standing in front of a freezer for a very long time," Ritzenheins says of the sensation. "When you open the door on a hot day, it's like that, only a lot colder."

According to Millennium Ice representatives, the theory behind the cryosauna is that it fools the body into believing it is in danger of freezing. The brain signals the body to draw blood from the extremities and rush it to the core for protection. After you step out, the blood rushes back out again, causing a rejuvenating boost of energy.

"An ice bath may help you recover in terms of flushing something out of your legs but the way this works, it seems that tiredness and soreness in the entire body is less after doing this," Salazar said from inside the chamber. "You can come in here after a hard interval workout and hard lifting workout back to back, when normally you would be totally wiped out, within an hour or two you feel great."

The cryosauna obviously works for Salazar's athletes, and also for Tyson Gay, who used one in his recovery from a hamstring injury earlier this year, but what wonders could it do for an out-of-shape reporter with a polluted liver and Achilles tendinitis?

There was only one way to answer that question, so I stripped down to my boxers and socks. After some unsettling direction on how best to protect the general and his two colonels - sorry, no photos for you Jen Sterger - I stepped into the chamber.

Aleksandr Matorin from Millennium Ice, pushed the button and in rushed the cold air. I was immediately reminded of Ritz's analogy, which was spot on. After about a minute, you could actually feel the blood being drawn toward your torso. I was startled by how cold your feet get during the process. That was probably the worst part.

A third blast of cold air rushed in and that's when things began to get uncomfortable. Matorin instructed me not to breathe in the nitrogen smoke surrounding me because "it will get you high." The final 30 seconds were by far the toughest. It was then that I started wondering, "How much longer to do I have to stand in here?!"

When the procedure ended, Matorin says in a thick Ukrainian accent, "Welcome back from space." I thanked my cosmonaut friend for unlatching the door to the chamber. Within seconds of stepping out I felt the blood rushing back to my extremities. The immediate endorphin rush was unexpected.

As I got dressed, I was struck by how refreshed I felt and couldn't help but notice that the pain in my right Achilles had lessened. Hours later, I still felt great. As I drove home, I couldn't help but think of the myriad ways the Space Cabin could help me unwind after a strenuous day of interviews and typing.

Then I remembered the price tag: $55,000 for the cryosauna and about $150 to fill the nitrogen tank.

It may work, but I'll be sticking with that $5 pint of ale.