Anyone can attest it’s hard to sleep when you’re hot.
It’s a fact that Garmin-Chipotle physiologist Allen Lim knows well. It’s why, among other things, regulating his riders’ temperatures on and off the bike is key to keeping them as fresh and fast as possible. This concept plays into both short-term and long-term performances; the former being a stage performance and the latter being the whole of the three-week race like the Tour de France.
Lim has borrowed, bought and made an array of tools to keep his guys cool. From cooling vests contracted from the team’s clothing sponsor Pearl Izumi, and homemade Lycra ice socks for riders to stick into their jerseys behind their necks, to simple electric fans for time trial warm ups and cooling helmets designed for the operating table.
The riders are hot because their metabolism is in high gear from the intense daily effort they’re forcing out of their bodies. The excess heat is not helpful. It makes the riders uncomfortable. It makes it harder for them to sleep, which is paramount to performing well. And finally the energy and blood that’s used for cooling can’t be used to carry oxygen to muscles for work or repair.
“If you reduce that temperature they sleep well,” said Lim.
The process of cooling his riders starts right after their efforts are done for the day. As soon as they get on the bus after a hot stage, Lim or other team staff hands them a hand-cooling device called CoreControl made by Avacore.
“You hold onto it and it circulates an ice cold fluid across your palm,” said Lim. “The blood vessels in your palm don’t have capillary buds so the arterial blood mixes right in with the veinus blood. You don’t have capillaries that can constrict and prevent loss of heat in your palm, it’s called arteriorvenous anastomoses, so you can pull a lot of heat out of the hand. So when the guys get on the bus we start cooling them with the handheld devices, immediately.”
At night, Lim has adopted the use of a surgical cooling helmet, which his riders sleep in. It has a similar effect to the hand-cooling device, but it’s more convenient to rest in. He says that it has helped his riders fall to sleep quicker after hard stages or when it’s hot. Lim noted that it’s especially helpful in Europe where many of the hotels are without air conditioning. It’s a product that’s gone “from the operating room to the Tour de France,” Lim pointed out.
Most days the riders hop out of the team bus and roll to the start of the race without a warm up, but before the time trials, where it’s necessary to bust from the starting blocks at a peak effort, the riders warm up. In the Garmin camp, they warm up their legs while keeping their cores cool.
This is where simple electric fans and special cooling vests are used.
“We have new prototype ice vests for the time trials and keeping the guys cool in general,” said Lim. “They have the option of packing real ice versus phase change material, stuff that tends to hold temperature longer.”
The team believes dealing with heat is more than just an issue of comfort.
“I would say that thermoregulation during racing is probably the single greatest limiting factor of performance during the summer; anytime you’re above 75-76-degrees,” says Lim. “When you do this [keep cool] you don’t have to use as much energy to cool yourself down so more of that blood can be used to actually deliver oxygen [to the muscles.]”
On the bike the team uses a custom made item the riders have bestowed with many names. For our purposes, we’ll call it an Ice Sock. The team has hundreds of these tubes made from a soft poly-fiber. On hot stages the Ice Socks are filled with ice and passed out with extra bottles when the riders come back to the team car. The socks, stuffed around the shoulders and neck, keep the riders cool through the properties of conduction, evaporation and convection.
“If you use something like this,” says Lim. “You’re getting the evaporation; you’re getting the conduction and the convection because you’re riding through air. If you use plastic [and the reason we don’t is] you hold onto the weight of the water; the bag stays full.”
Space Legs: Garmin’s Secret Weapon
While thermo regulation is the mainstay of the riders performing at their best on the bike and recovering afterwards, Lim and his riders call NormaTec PCDs their secret recovery weapon.
NormaTec’s PCD acronym stands for Pneumatic Compression Device. The team uses the company’s leg compression devices. The ‘space legs,’ as the riders’ call them, are akin to compression tights multiplied by 100 and given a mind of their own. They inflate and deflate to carefully prescribed pressures that have been proven to effectively treat swollen limbs due to medical conditions like diabetes and lymphatic disorders, as well as non-healing wounds. The team has found the devices dramatically reduce recovery time and improve the riders’ performances.