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Olympians turn to performance technology to gain an edge in Tokyo

Thermo pills, hot boxes, liquid chalk mitigate effects of heat and humidity, but it’s still up to the athletes to race

(Tommy Zaferes/contributed photo) Two-time U.S. Olympian Katie Zaferes trains on her bike in a tent equipped with a heater and humidifier that takes temperatures above 90 degrees and humidity around 80% — similar conditions to those she'll face in Tokyo for the Olympics in the coming weeks.

The pill that John Farra, USA Triathlon’s high-performance manager and a Heber City resident, offered the athletes training for the Tokyo Olympics could be mistaken for a Tylenol capsule. It’s about three-quarters of an inch long and white, sometimes with a red or blue cap. But when it’s ingested, it doesn’t take away the pain, it tracks it.

Inside the pill is a microbattery, a temperature sensor made of quartz crystal, a miniaturized circuit board and a telemetry system. Those systems read an athlete’s internal body heat and, depending on the model, heart rate and respiratory rate. It transmits that information to computers, where it can be reviewed by members of the coaching, team physiologists or the athletes themselves. Then, in a day or two, the pill benignly passes through and out of the body.

If it sounds like space-age technology, it is. The “internal thermometer pill” was invented by NASA in the 1980s to monitor astronauts’ body temperatures inside their space suits. And it’s one of a myriad of technologies — some rudimentary and others futuristic — that athletes and their teams in multiple sports have experimented with to help them beat what could be their biggest nemesis in Tokyo: extremely high heat and humidity.

“There was no mystery that these Olympics were picked for a time that maybe one of the biggest concerns is that the heat might make it challenging,” Farra said. “And it turned out just that way.”

The average high temperature this time of year in Tokyo is 90 degrees, which in itself would be hot but bearable. Add in the area’s 80% humidity, however, and the air becomes more suffocating than sustaining. The triathlon test event in 2019 actually had to be shortened because of the heat, and organizers aren’t ruling that out again for the Olympic race.

Athletes competing indoors should find comfort in air conditioning and pool coolers. But those whose venues are in the open are looking for any gizmos, gadgets and experimental training platforms that will give them a legal advantage — especially when the difference between Olympic glory and disappointment can be determined by something as thin as a hundredth of a second, or the slip of a finger or a muscle cramp.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City native Nathaniel Coleman works out at the US Climbing Training Center training Center in Salt Lake City, in preparation for representing Team USA in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, where climbing will make its debut, on Thursday, July 15, 2021.

SWEAT EQUITY

Sport climbers go to extreme lengths to protect the hard-earned calluses on their fingers. Some have been known to wear gloves in the shower or keep their hands elevated while spending time in the hot tub. They use razors and sandpaper to file down burrs and sometimes Super Glue to patch the calluses when they split.

All of this is done to improve their grip. But one basic bodily function can negate all that work: sweat. And with all three climbing disciplines — speed, boulder and lead — being held outside, it’ll be flowing.

Chalk has been the countermeasure to sweat since the heyday of dirtbaggers. But the growth of the sport has spawned a growth of options. Types of chalk now range from the basic, ground-up version of the teacher’s tool to ones that add antiperspirants to ones that come in cream form.

Nathaniel Coleman, a Murray native who became the first American man to qualify for the Olympics in climbing, said he expects to use a liquid chalk to stop the slip in Tokyo. He said the rubbing alcohol in it helps dry out his hands. He has a few more basic solutions as well.

“While you’re climbing, if your skin is getting very sweaty, I found little tricks,” he said. “If I don’t have time to chalk up, I can just, like, tap my pants and that absorbs a lot of moisture and I get decent friction on the next hold.”

Zack DiCristino, USA Climbing’s medical manager, said some teams take a more out-of-the-box approach to shrinking the sweat factor.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A Hpot Room, where Salt Lake City native Nathaniel Coleman and Kyra Condie work out at the US Climbing Training Center training Center in Salt Lake City, in preparation for representing Team USA in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, where climbing will make its debut, on Thursday, July 15, 2021.

“I have seen some interesting things and I’ve heard of some interesting things that we don’t really do. And whether it’s really effective or not, I don’t know,” he said. “Like one team you would see the athletes wear this little patch and the patch is actually something that is an antinausea that people get after surgery. They wear this patch because of the anesthesia, the drugs, and supposedly it’s supposed to help them not sweat as much.”

DiCristino said he’s seen only one sure-fire way to reduce the sweat effect, and that’s to acclimatize. It’s why the American climbers left Wednesday for Japan even though they don’t compete until Aug. 3-6. Even before they left, they’d spend one day a week working out in a small room in the Salt Lake City training center that had been outfitted with a portable climbing wall, a stationary bike, two heaters and two humidifiers.

WELCOME TO THE HOT BOX

The training hot box is familiar to two-time Olympic triathlete Katie Zaferes. She tortured herself in one in Flagstaff, Arizona, before the 2019 Olympic test event in Tokyo. Every day she would grind out a 1 ½-hour training session in a garage heated to 91 degrees with 80% humidity. Puddles of sweat would pool underneath her bike trainer or the treadmill and her nostrils would burn from the heat.

“I was up for anything that would help prepare me for Tokyo conditions,” Zaferes said at the time.

Farra, the high-performance manager, said that has been the attitude of the entire USA Triathlon Olympic squad, which also includes Taylor Knibb and Summer Rappaport in the women’s race and Kevin McDowell and Morgan Pearson in the men’s. Also, for the first time, a coed relay will be included among the Olympic races.

(John Farra, contributed photo) John Farra, right, of Heber City joins Ryan Bolton, the Team USA performance advisor, on the course of the Tokyo Olympics test event in 2019. Farra is USA Triathlon's high-performance manager and has provided technology to the American athletes that they hope will give them an edge in the upcoming Olympic races in Japan.

Farra, who competed for the Team USA in cross country at the 1992 Games, said he puts together “essentially a menu for athletes” of ways to get the most out of their bodies while racing in the Tokyo heat.

He upped the ante on the hot box and gave athletes the opportunity to endure those conditions at altitude within the High Altitude Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado. A wind tunnel added resistance training. Athletes also had access to blood analysis, sweat-rate tests and, of course, real-time body heat readouts of the thermometer pill.

“If they took the chance to try this technology, oftentimes they would find something of value,” Farra said, “To say, ‘Huh. Interesting. I was actually getting close to the point at which scientists suggest that they can show that I’m going to decrease my capacity for high performance.’”

And the technology doesn’t stop with the training. Farra said athletes and the organization have been experimenting with race-day strategies as well. They’ve tinkered with whether to have frozen water bottles or ones filled with ice chips waiting for them on their bikes. Because of the chance of heat sickness, Olympic organizers are letting athletes take cooled items from their coaches during the run, including wet towels for their necks or hand-held ice packs.

Unlike in most triathlons, where the swim acts as a coolant, the water in Tokyo Bay is expected to be bathwater warm. For that reason, Farra believes one tool almost all the athletes will take advantage of are ice vests (a tool the climbers also plan to use) that they’ll wear right up to the moment they dive in.

The sole purpose of all this technology? To give Team USA’s Olympic athletes any advantage they can get.

“The line between winning a medal at an Olympic Games and being fourth is so narrow,” Farra said, “... that every little tiny teeny bit of high-performance statistics and analysis and finding differences in time could be what gets you from fourth to third.”

Pearson, a Boulder, Colorado, athlete who will be making his Olympic debut, sees the value in all this technology. He also sees its limitations.

“Maybe some technology can help us understand how we’re feeling, and that’s a good thing,” he said. “But on the race day, you’re going to have to do it yourself.”

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