Want to run a faster 5K, 10K, or marathon? Cool it!

If you’ve read the blog, “Stuff White People Like,” you may be familiar with #27 Marathons. One of the more telling truths of the mindset we’ve degenerated to is the fact that

“To a white person, the absolute pinnacle of fitness is to run a marathon.  Not to win, just to run.”

Clander, 2008

Of course, I don’t agree. Anyway, for those of you that want to win your races like me here’s a keen idea. If you’ve been reading my posts, you know I recently became interested in saunas. As part of my interest in saunas, I came across a paper by Scoon, G.S.M, et al., (2007) Effect of post-exercise sauna bathing on the endurance performance of competitive male runners, Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, vol. 10, pp. 259—262. This paper reports on a study involving 6 male runners (I know, a really small sample.) Here are the conclusions from the paper:

The physiological adaptations to sauna bathing could enhance endurance performance. We have therefore performed a cross-over study in which six male distance runners completed 3 wk of post-training sauna bathing and 3 wk of control training, with a 3 wk washout. During the sauna period, subjects sat in a humid sauna at 89.9 ± 2.0 ◦C (mean ± standard deviation) immediately post-exercise for 31 ± 5 min on 12.7 ± 2.1 occasions. The performance test was a ∼15 min treadmill run to exhaustion at the runner’s current best speed over 5 km.

Scoon, GSM, et al., (2007)

Coincidentally, I saw another idea in this video by Klint with A K, which points to a video by Andrew Huberman, an  American neuroscientist and tenured professor in the Department of Neurobiology at Stanford University stating a big reason endurance athletes fatigue as they run is that the muscles get overheated. To combat this, Huberman suggests using a cool mitt that cools your blood. This technique can extend your endurance up to 300%!! This claim is not without controversy (see below.)

Apparently, the best place(s) on your body to cool your blood (and your core temperature) is where you have the most capillaries exposed. Those places are your hands, feet, and face.

…most efficient at shedding heat through the hairless (or glabrous) skin on our faces and extremities, where blood vessels congregate at shallow depths.

Daniel Engber in Slate from 20212, Better than Steroids?

Hence, the cool mitt. But this isn’t very efficient when you’re running. It would be like running with an IV station. Not very conducive to a fast time.

It still got me thinking. Could you run with some ice cubes in your hands? Or, stop every mile or two late in a race like a marathon and stick your hands and face in a bucket of ice water. These studies were actually done (Engber, 2012, Better Than Steroids?)

OK, so how are these two ideas presented here related?

They both deal with the effect of heat on long-term performance. The Scoon, et al. paper suggests that by doing saunas starting three weeks prior to your race for 4 times a week for 30 minutes each, you can extend the length of time to exhaustion by 30%!! This improvement appears to be related to increased blood volume from the saunas.

Huberman suggests cooling your core temperature can extend your endurance up to 300%. This number is a couple of standard deviations away from the mean which is more in line with the Scoon, et al. paper.

Controversy

There are always counterarguments. In his paper referenced above, Daniel Engber casts doubt on the efficacy of the cool mitt strategy.

the glove’s effects diminish as a workout gets more intense

 EngBer, Slate, 2012, Better Than Steroids?

cooling vest that pumps water around the torso. The glove and water bath proved ineffective; only the vest increased endurance.

 EngBer, Slate, 2012, Better Than Steroids?

Conclusion

Both of these studies support the notion that you can increase your endurance by cooling your core temperature during endurance exercise. While the cool mitt directly cools your blood, the sauna acclimatizes your body to the higher body temperatures experienced during races like a marathon.

It seems that the effectiveness of cooling the body increases with temperature and humidity. So, newsflash, run your marathons in cooler weather. But if you must run in heat and humidity, three weeks prior to your race take 4 30 minute saunas each week. Regardless, if you run a marathon, it would behoove you to try the sauna technique. It can’t hurt.