I wrote a quick piece last summer about Ag2r La Mondiale’s use of ice baths. Many teams use these for recovery, the basic idea is that the cold water helps reduce swelling in muscle tissue. But there are varying degrees of sophistication. You’ll find some teams using Oscar-The-Grouch technique, a trash bin half filled with water and then topped up with ice. A couple of teams use the same bins but have special machinery to cool and pump the water, saving the soigneurs from freezing 20 litres at a time.
But Ag2r are using far more sophisticated means. Forget climbing into icy water, they simply walk into a “cryo sauna” booth as depicted above. This is transported on a team truck. Operated by trained personnel, it allows the athlete to momentarily experience temperatures of -170°C (-270°F). Instead of the gradual cooling via icy water, this is meant to be a faster and more direct method. Dressed in cotton shorts, as well as gloves and socks to cover the extremities they climb into the booth, close the door and stand upright. The super cold air is quickly channelled inside.
It’s based on the use of liquid nitrogen and apparently without danger as the exposure is so short, there is only time to cool the skin and no worries for the internal organs. But even the quick dip in the cold reduces core body temperature a touch. The “sauna” booth is made by French company TEC4H and whilst the company is exploring the sporting benefits, apparently there are many medical uses for cryotherapy, from treatment of muscle injuries to skin disease.
FDJ were using the same technique during their recent mountain training camp. Apparently the riders aren’t sure if it works, it’s probably not the reason why Ag2r saw several riders doing strong rides in the Dauphiné prologue. When interviewed about it, FDJ riders seemed keen to try it but cautious on the results, a similar view was expressed by Nicolas Roche on Twitter.
Indeed the whole subject of ice baths seems confusing, with some academic studies saying the technique work but others claim the contrary. It’s not new though, old hands in stage races knew the benefits of filling up a bath with cold water.