Chris Froome is closing in on the fourth Tour De France victory of his career.
The 32-year-old British cyclist has dominated the sport in recent years in large part thanks to a philosophy known as "marginal gains." Invented by Team Sky performance director Dave Brailsford, the idea is that if you can improve everything related to cycling performance by just 1%, those small enhancements will come together to create a remarkable difference in performance.
For Froome, a breathing device known as the "Turbine" is one of those marginal gains. "It's a breathing aid," Froome told SBS. "(It helps) to get the maximum airflow in. I think they're great."
Yesterday was my first outing with @theturbinecom. Noticeable difference, will definitely use again!
— Chris Froome (@chrisfroome) August 24, 2014
According to Rhinomed, the company behind the Turbine, the product is a "nasal stent" which has been clinically proven to increase nasal airflow by an average of 38%. Think of it like one of those breathing strips you've seen on marathoners or football players from the 80s, but instead of being applied on the outside of the nose, it goes on the inside:
The science behind the Turbine is logical enough. The product internally dilates a portion of the nose known as the "nasal valve" area. This is the narrowest part of the human nose and it significantly limits airflow. "From the physiologic point of view, it is the place of maximum nasal flow resistance," the authors of a 2007 review on the topic write. "The internal nasal valve constitutes the bottleneck of the nose. It is responsible for almost half of the total airway resistance." By opening up this portion of the nose, the Turbine improves nasal air flow.
But does that translate to an improvement in performance? Maybe not. A recent study published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport found that the Turbine was ineffective at enhancing 20km cycling time trial performance. So what gives?
To get a better sense of the benefits the Turbine might offer, I decided I had to try it out for myself.
While I don't have a sports performance lab at my disposal, I do have a credit card and an Amazon Prime account. I ordered an assorted trial pack of Turbines for under $10. The company recommends first-time users start with a trial pack so that they can determine whether a small, medium or large-sized Turbine works best for their nasal anatomy.
The product itself is very lightweight. Beyond the three sizes, each Turbine features dual "ratchets" that allow you to further fine-tune the amount of dilation you'd like in each side of your nose. It took me a while to figure out the right configuration (the company says a proper-fitting Turbine can be worn comfortably for many hours), but I eventually settled on the medium-sized Turbine with the adjustable dilation maxed out. Indeed, it was quite comfortable inside my nose.
Once I found my fit, I headed out for a workout. There's a large grassy area near my apartment which I often visit to do high-intensity interval training. On this day, my workout consisted of "sideline gasser" type runs and agility-style drills punctuated with Push-Ups, Planks and Burpees. I've done similar workouts before, and I know how effective they are at raising my heart rate.
The first thing I noticed about the Turbine was how sturdily it sat inside my nose. Whether I was jogging on concrete or changing directions on grass, the Turbine always stayed in place. That's a huge plus in my opinion, since no athlete needs the distraction of constantly toying with such a device during training or competition.
Second, I did feel like I was capable of both inhaling and exhaling through my nose more effectively with the Turbine. The difference wasn't overwhelming, but I did feel like there was a change. The device also seemed to help me better focus on "belly breathing" while I recovered between intervals. For me, this took the form of inhaling deep through my nose and into my abdomen before exhaling through my mouth. While the research on nose vs. mouth breathing is still inconclusive, certain experts believe nose breathing to be the superior option if an athlete's comfortable with it. "Breathing through your nasal passage can increase CO2 saturation in the blood and slow down your breathing—both of which create a calming effect," Dr. Roy Sugarman, director of applied neuroscience at EXOS, told CorePerformance.com. It's also possible that the simple act of wearing a Turbine made me more conscious of my breathing, which better helped me control it. So I did feel that the Turbine helped me breathe better—at least through my nose. But did that translate to improved performance?
It's hard to say, since this was far from a scientifically sound experiment. I will say that the Turbine definitely didn't seem to hurt my performance. If it did help, the benefit I experienced was marginal—it's not like the Turbine suddenly turned me into a superhuman incapable of getting winded. But if I was an elite athlete engaging in a lengthy competition (such as a marathon), perhaps that marginal gain would be enough to warrant the Turbine's usage.
As I cooled down after my workout, I wasn't quite sure what to think about the Turbine. Sure, I felt like it was helping me breathe better, but was that simply because the product made me more conscious of my breathing? And while the product certainly didn't have a negative impact on my performance, I wasn't sure whether it significantly upgraded it, either.
But as I removed the Turbine from my nose while I walked back toward my apartment, I noticed something. After spending about 45 minutes with the device in, breathing without it suddenly felt much more labored. I'd never noticed the way my nasal valve obstructed air flow before, but I did in that moment. I felt like I was wheezing more than I was breathing. While that sensation eventually faded away, it solidified the validity of the Turbine's design in my mind. Perhaps this is why Rhinomed offers a money back guarantee if a customer doesn't experience feelings of increased airflow while using their product.
While research has yet to prove that the Turbine results in a concrete performance advantage (the company states that its "continuing trials in elite universities to demonstrate performance benefits"), the simple feeling of enhanced airflow may be enough to convince certain athletes that it's worth the price. The company states that a Turbine unit shouldn't be used for more than 10 distinct sessions, so it would be a recurring expense for anyone who becomes a regular user. My take? If you're realistic about the effects, there's no harm in purchasing a trial pack to see how well the Turbine works for you. If anything, trying the product may help you pay closer attention to your breathing—a detail many of us overlook.
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