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A cooling touch for Olympic athletes

For Olympic athletes, overheating is not just a barrier to peak performance; it can also pose a serious health risk. This problem will only get worse as human-driven climate change pushes temperatures up around the world.

Lowering the body’s core temperature during breaks is one crucial way athletes can ensure that they perform at their peak for longer. Sports medicos have been using low-tech solutions like wet cloths and ice baths for decades, but these can be intrusive, impractical, and not always effective.

The Paris 2024 Olympics will see some athletes take a different approach, using high-tech cooling equipment that cools the body through one extremity.

A hands-on approach

Craig Heller, a biology professor at Stanford University in the USA, is the co-inventor of CoolMitt. Athletes use the glove-like device to cool down, either during breaks during training – such as in between sets at the gym – or during competitions, such as the half-time break of a football match.

Heller says the mitt “prevents hyperthermia, which is a rise in body temperature to a dangerous level. And therefore it enables you to have a higher work volume. And if you have a higher work volume, you get a bigger conditioning effect.”

Inside the mitt, the athlete places their palm on a water-perfused pad that is cooled to 10–12°C. This draws the heat out and cools the athlete’s blood, which then circulates around the body. Using the mitt for a few minutes is enough to reduce the body’s core temperature and help the athlete recover quicker.

The technology uses a principle Heller has researched himself: heat loss through glabrous (non-hairy) skin surfaces, such as the palm of the hand. Such surfaces in the body have specialised vascular structures that allow the body to shed heat more quickly and efficiently in those areas.

This principle explains in part why extremities such as hands and feet are most sensitive to cold weather, and why clothing such as gloves and thick woollen socks are essential for staying warm.

The results

CoolMitt presents several case studies suggesting that the technology can help athletes improve their performance. Among these were a study where an NFL player improved his bench press reps by 31.4 per cent over five weeks of using the cooling technology, with no gains during a four-week control period.

Another study showed that an athlete experienced some improvement in the number of pull-ups they were able to do (from 100 to 180) when cooling after every workout, but saw a dramatic increase when cooling after every second set (up to 616 pull-ups).

Now, Olympians such as the US wrestling team will use the cooling technology at the Paris 2024 Olympic Games. Given that the Olympic village won’t have air conditioning, this could be crucial for helping athletes recover and perform at their peak.

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