Exploring High-Tech Ways to Run Faster

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A. Schuster / plainpicture-Corbis

On my wedding day, I ran 10 miles before 8 a.m. Having surpassed my personal 10k record only five days before, I wasn't going to allow a little ceremony to interfere with my training. My husband and I ran every day during our honeymoon, including a tough 10-miler in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park and a hill workout in Carmel. This was no sacrifice: I'd already cut fat from my diet, obeyed a year-round training schedule that included weights, pool running, and massage, and absorbed every diktat of my coach. My purpose was to get faster—fast enough to qualify for the 1992 Olympic trials marathon—and no inconvenience was too great.

I was part of the distinct subset of competitive runners and endurance athletes who are willing to try almost anything to improve performance. A handful resorts to illegal drugs, doping, and other nefarious activities to nudge nature. Most of us get faster in more predictable ways, starting with grueling training, a disciplined diet, a stunted lifestyle. Next, you might adopt quasi-scientific tactics to speed recovery and enhance training: ice baths, massage, chiropractors, yoga.

Before long, if your times remain static and your body hurts, you'll think about trying the latest gadget that promises assistance or relief: foam rollers, knee straps, heart-rate monitors, kinesiology tape. Walk through the expo of any big race and you'll discover an alternate universe of goods seductively promising a reprieve from injuries and an easy path to improved performance.

A whole range of high-tech products has emerged to satisfy this hunger for greater speed. At the top of the technology food chain are altitude tents and masks, which pump oxygen-deprived air into a small space to trigger an adaptation in blood chemistry. Oxygen deprivation, in addition to being uncomfortable, stimulates the kidneys to produce erythropoietin (EPO), which in turn signals the body to create more red blood cells. These cells transport oxygen through the body, so increasing them allows a runner to breathe more easily at sea level. For maximum effect, a runner "sleeps high"—to acquire more red blood cells—and "trains low"—to seize the natural benefits that come from running with ample oxygen.

For just $4,900, the Everest Summit II altitude generator by Hypoxico, Inc. creates a little piece of the Himalayas in your bedroom. When attached to a bed tent ($350 for portable, $450 for king and queen size), the generator reduces oxygen in the tent and allows the sleeper to accumulate red blood cells over many nights. Those reluctant to sleep like the Boy in the Bubble can opt for an exercise mask ($75), which attaches to the face and allows an athlete to sleep or exercise on a treadmill with minimal oxygen. As an alternative, Hypoxico recommends Intermittent Hypoxic Training: breathing with the mask on for five minutes at a simulated altitude—up to 7,000 meters, higher than Mount Kilimanjaro—and then off for five minutes, and on and off again, for a total of 60 minutes. Though elite runners most commonly purchase altitude systems, more and more ordinary runners are buying them, says Matthew Formato, director of business development at Hypoxico.

One of the latest products to hit the racing circuit is the NormaTec MVP Pro, a compression system that uses a "peristaltic pulse" to push blood through the body and enhance circulation. Designed to reduce the lymphatic swelling that sometimes accompanies breast cancer, the device—which looks like a sleeping bag attached to a vacuum cleaner—has since morphed into a training tool among top runners and cyclists. Tired runners insert their legs in the puffy boots, pull them up to their hips, and adjust the settings, sometimes strapping in for as long as two hours. Next fall, the company is putting out an Enthusiast model ($1,500) to appeal to the amateur in search of speed and quick recovery, and potential buyers from all over the world are already restless. "A guy from Slovenia called the other day and said, 'Bill my credit card and ship it to me when it's ready!'?" says Gilad Jacobs, vice president for sports medicine at NormaTec.

Most serious runners I know use watches armed with a Garmin GPS, the most expensive of which ($400) offers exacting information about pace, distance, calories burned, and heart rate, all of which can be uploaded to a computer and analyzed at will. "These are my fastest-growing consumer products," said Mike Conforti, who owns the Sneaker Factory running stores in New Jersey. Initially bought by experienced runners who wanted to get to the next level, the watches are increasingly popular with average runners, he says.

None of these devices was available back in 1991, when I was in top form. That's no doubt why I missed qualifying for the Olympic trials marathon by four minutes (and 18 seconds). Though way past my racing prime now, I recently fell for the Garmin watch with such zeal that I pulled a hamstring doing a too-fast workout; I couldn't tolerate those pathetic numbers revealing my pace and unwisely stepped it up. I am still holding out on the tent and compression system, but that doesn't mean I won't get sucked in when the next gadget breaks through. Even the very best runners are susceptible; Chris Lear, a 4:09 miler in high school, tried platformlike jump shoes to build calf strength and speed. Instead of tearing up the track, he tore a muscle. "I'm an idiot," he says. But you can't blame the guy for trying.