UConn Heat Lab Tests Pro Athletes Under Extreme Conditions

Crouched in a bucket inside UConn’s heat lab, Ironman triathlete Adam Chase, 51, brushed water and sweat from his body as a researcher poured water over his head.

Two other researchers held high the plastic sheeting that lined the bucket, taking care to catch every drop of sweat and water falling from Chase. Moments later, they tossed in the towels he’d just used to mop his face and back as he ran for 45 minutes at a 7-mph clip in the 94-degree room.

“Sweat soup,” one athlete said as she waited for her turn inside the Korey Stringer Institute’s new $700,000 heat lab.

This salty concoction is what the UConn kinesiologists would weigh and test to determine how much Chase had sweat during his sweltering workout, how many electrolytes he’d lost and other metrics he might be able to use to improve his performance and lessen the risks of heatstroke from extreme exertion.

“It’s not half as glamorous as it sounds,” Luke Belval, director of research, said after describing the process.

The same can’t be said for the lab itself, a 450-square-foot facility that opened Sept. 22 in Gampel Pavilion. After a three-year campaign, the nonprofit Korey Stringer Institute unveiled a major upgrade to UConn’s 27-year-old heat lab made possible by $350,000 from the university, $100,000 from Mission Athletecare — an active wear and thermo-regulation technology company that secured the lab’s naming rights — and other donors, including the NFL.

The lab’s chamber simulates balmy and humid conditions for research participants and clients, including athletes, military members and laborers, who come to UConn for hourslong sessions.

It’s equipped with $50,000 worth of treadmills and stationary bikes, a cold-water immersion tub, strong air flow that mimics the outdoors and a climate-controlled bathroom.

In temperatures that can reach 110 degrees and 90 percent humidity, researchers work with NFL and NCAA teams, the military and athletic apparel and technology companies to analyze the human body’s response to extreme conditions.

On the recent Thursday when the lab studied Chase, of Colorado, it also drew professional athletes who traveled to Storrs from Vermont, northern California and Lithuania.

And the lab’s reputation precedes its new digs. UConn researchers have been studying the effects of heat and humidity on exertion since Gampel opened in 1990.

Researchers would control humidity in the 100-square-foot room by toggling between household humidifiers and dehumidifiers. They removed ceiling tiles above the treadmills to accommodate taller athletes.

Above the entrance, a sticker read, “FUN ZONE.”

“I’m sure in 1999, it was state of the art,” said Robert Huggins, the institute’s vice president of research and athlete performance and safety.

It was showing its age by 2010, but that didn’t stop Doug Casa, UConn’s director of athletic training education, from partnering that year with the family of Korey Stringer, the Minnesota Vikings offensive tackle who died from complications of heatstroke in 2001. Casa founded the Korey Stringer Institute in the hopes of maximizing athletic performance and saving lives.

Research in the heat lab has helped demonstrate that sudden deaths like Stringer’s are preventable with quick, correct treatment — like the kind staff members provided while doing case studies of annual road races in Falmouth, Mass.

Staff have studied the effects of cold water immersion and cooling tarps, hydration and caffeine, humidity and sleep.

The institute also consults with agencies and organizations including the U.S. Army, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, NASA, the Boston Marathon and the NFL on their policies and recommendations, and carries out independent, policy-based studies.

In August, for example, the institute released a nationwide assessment of safety guidelines for high school athletes. It found most states were failing to set requirements that would properly protect young athletes from life-threatening conditions like heatstroke, sudden cardiac arrest, traumatic head injury and exertional sickling, which is a medical emergency that can occur in athletes carrying the sickle cell trait.

Until last month, much of that research emerged from UConn’s old heat lab, which occupied a space no bigger than a dorm room in the school’s 7,800-square-foot Human Performance Laboratory.

“It was a basic facility we were able to do some cool things in,” Casa, the institute’s CEO, said of the old lab. “But this one really ups our ability to help athletes, warfighters and laborers who have to do intense work in the heat.

“The potential for research and service for people who need help is greater than it’s ever been before,” he said.

Over the course of three years, Casa sought ideas for the new heat chamber by visiting high-end labs across North America, such as the Nike Sport Research Lab in Portland, Ore., and facilities at the University of Arkansas and University of Ottawa.

He says he borrowed the best features he could find and added more. This winter, the lab will install radiant heat lamps to mimic the effects of sunlight and cloudy skies.

While the new lab took a considerable investment, it also brings in research dollars — about $3 million in the past three years. It also gets plenty of traffic from clients, who pay between $500 and $5,000 for different levels of service, from monitoring of hourlong workouts to multiday testing.

These individuals range from people who have had heatstroke to laborers, military members and, naturally, athletes who want to prepare for hot and humid conditions.

UConn women’s cross country team uses the equipment to stay conditioned through their season, which carries into November.

So did a team of CamelBak-sponsored professional athletes on Oct. 5.

Lithuanian trailrunner Gediminas Grinius — the male winner of the 2016 Ultra Trail World Tour — had never so much as tracked his water intake or temperature before stepping foot in the lab.

Two-time U.S. Olympian mountain biker Lea Davison, of Vermont, said she already does what she can to stay cool, including riding with a bag of ice cubes under her shirt during particularly hot races.

Some new information and a little conditioning can only help, she said, peddling the lab’s $10,000 bike.

“I’m always looking for something that can give me that edge.”

Copyright © 2017, CT Now
40°