Are two Stanford University biologists about to change the future of exercise science and running as we know it? Richard Stiller made a journey to campus to find out…
It is early November, 2011. I am navigating through the Stanford University Campus in Palo Alto, California. I have a 1 p.m. meeting in Gilbert Hall. Parking is always a problem on the East Side of the Campus. Unless you have a parking sticker you are relegated to fighting it out for the few coin operated parking meters in and around Palm Drive.
But I am searching for the Holy Grail, and I have been told it resides nearby. So the parking wars are worth it. After driving around for five minutes, I see an empty slot. By the time I am finished feeding the parking meter I have bought myself two full hours.
I still have a decent distance to walk to Gilbert Hall. Luckily the weather is typical early winter for the San Francisco Bay Area: Cool but sunny.
I used to work here. That was 35 years ago, as a food service manager on the other side of campus in Tressider Union. I was also a relatively fast age-group runner. After work, I would run the campus and the hills that bordered it.
Back then, at 30, I could run eight to 10 miles a day, day after day. Recovering from a hard run meant simply running at a slightly slower pace – but not running fewer miles or, God forbid, taking a day off.
But that’s not me anymore. At 66, I still run – but mostly every other day. I run very slowly. In between runs I gift my body with total days off. These days off are training days. They have simply taken the place of those eight- to 10-milers at a seven-minute pace from three decades ago. For 20 years this has been my recovery method. I even wrote an article about it.
I have lost count of how many miles I have run. I know it’s north of 90,000 and probably is over 100,000. I stopped keeping a log years ago. What I do know is that I have been running continuously since 1968.
There are two types of old runners: those who have run far fewer miles (and as a result have young legs), and those who are like me. I simply have too many accumulated miles and years on our legs. A few of us have escaped the ravages but most of my contemporaries are shadows of their former selves.
If years ago, miles and speed were king, now for us older runners, recovery is king. So that is the reason I am walking towards Gilbert Hall on this wintry day in November.
Two Stanford biologists, Dennis Grahn and Craig Heller, have invented a technology that speeds up recovery for athletes. It is called RTX, which stands for Rapid Thermal Exchange. Some people just called it by its nickname. The Glove. There have been a number of articles about it on the Web. Strangely I – a man mildly obsessed with recovery techniques — have totally missed them. Luckily my Faster Than Forty editor gave me a heads up.
Dennis Grahn greets me at his office and apologizes because he is in the middle of testing something in the lab. I see a Petri dish with greenish contents simmering over a flame: a polymer-based substance. I figure out pretty quickly that it has something to do with the recovery technology.
Grahn gestures toward the dish.
“You are probably wondering why a biologist is fooling around with polymers,” he said with a smile. He doesn’t know I spent seven years of my life in Silicon Valley supporting researchers.
“No,” I tell him. I don’t ask why. “I am more interested in what you are trying to accomplish.”Once he knows I understand researchers, we sit down in the lab while he keeps an eagle eye on the Petri dish.
Grahn explains that the palms of the hand are the radiators of the human body. If you can cool the blood via this portal, the core of the body cools and reduces the inflammation that comes from exposure to heat built up through exercise. This helps the body recover faster.
So, I ask, why not just stick your hands in a bucket of cold water or ice?
Grahn explains how the blood vessels close off – so while you may cool your hands, the cooled blood is not transported to your core, which includes the heart and lungs. And of course he is right. Hold a glass if ice water in your hands and then take it away and look at your palms. They are white in color. After a time the color returns to your skin, but only when the palms warm up.
So I can’t circumvent the technology by dipping my hands in ice water. (I had imagined myself out on the track doing an interval workout in the heat. After each interval I go over to a cooler filled with ice and shove my hand in there.) Grahn laughs, explaining that all I will get is cold hands.
We discuss cooling vests, like those used by the American Marathon team at the 2004 Athens Olympics. Grahn admits that they can be effective to a point but the effect is random. Yes, two USA runners medaled, but the vests didn’t help the rest of the team. RTX’s goal is to cool the core. Grahn points out once again that the most effective way to cool the core is by cooling the blood and having that blood flow to the core.
“So how does it work?” I ask.
He takes me into another lab and shows me the device. It does resemble a glove of sorts. The exterior is transparent and there is a sleeve for the hand. The user puts his or her hand in the glove and grabs the cooling device. It is metallic and shaped like a half dome.
To me the whole thing resembles a coffee pot that you can put your hand inside of.
The sleeve, Grahn explained, creates a vacuum. This along with the metal cooling device allows the blood to cool via the palms and be carried to the core of the body without closing off the blood vessels in the hand.
(On my second visit with Grahn a month later I actually tried the glove for about five minutes. The sleeve was not constrictive or tight at all but I could feel suction of the vacuum. When I took my hand out my palm was still my normal skin color.)
Here is the kicker with RTX: You don’t have to keep your hand in there for hours or even 15 minutes. Just five minutes a day will have an astonishing effect. Grahn asks me if I want to see the research data. He and Heller have been at this for close to a decade. They have run a number of test groups including athletes of all sorts. They have worked with ultra runners (but not yet with garden-variety non-ultra runners). I am contemplating the benefits for us weekend road warriors — especially aging runners — but I am also thinking of the Stanford cross country and track and field teams.
Grahn looks at me sheepishly. He admits that those markets never occurred to him. Grahn and Heller did work with football players. Jim Harbaugh had his players use the device when he was the Stanford Football Coach.
We spend the next hour looking at videos and slides and raw data. I am not bored; I am overwhelmed with the amount of testing they have done. I am drinking the Kool Aid, so to speak. It’s not only the data on test subjects. It’s other stuff. Like the Bushmen who live in the Kalahari, where water is a rare commodity. When they come to water, they don’t pour it on their heads or even drink it right away. They dip their hands in the water and then splash their face with it. Then they drink. They aren’t scientists. To them this isn’t an experiment. It’s life or death. It’s survival.
Sled dogs in the arctic are another natural example of the concept. I always figured that their cooling system was through the mouth. It is in a sense, but specifically it’s their tongue.
Like humans with our palms.
So why isn’t this technology out there?
Turns out that Grahn and Heller have had had some successes. DARPA funded their research for a number of years. The Glove ended up being used in the Middle East by U.S. Troops. A company bought patent rights to the technology and is selling the device at around $4,000 dollars a pop… but that’s way too expensive for the average consumer.
Grahn mentions that he is working on a much less expensive and more portable model. This model would require the athlete to wear a glove with a pad like cooling device inside against the palm of the hand. A light water filled bladder could be worn on the athlete’s back, for example, and the liquid would be cooled by a AA battery-powered device. So a guy like me could go for a run on a moderately warm day and keep my body cool. Or I could run a hard workout on the track and slip on the glove afterward and cool my body down to facilitate recovery.
Now I am stoked. This sounds like the Holy Grail I am interested in.
I have to ask the important question:.
“Does this really work?”
Grahn gets a very serious look on his face.
“We know that this works. We know exactly what it can do.”
More than two hours have passed. I know that the time on my parking meter has expired. I explain to Grahn that I have to leave but ask to come back in three or four weeks. He is open to it. I hustle out to my car. The campus police haven’t reached my parking spot yet.
Over the next few days I talk to some fellow runners about RTX. Like me they are grizzled veterans whose best days are well behind them. But all of them still love running and are always looking for a way to run day after day. To a man, their response is the same:
“I want one of those.” Those being RTX.
“It’s $4,000 dollars,” I tell them, “but the updated technology that Grahn and Heller are presently working will be a decided improvement, maybe as much as 50-75% with far less cost.”
Their responses tell me a great deal. Knowing that a new version of RTX might be six months or longer in the future (generally with new technology longer is the optimal word) they all justify their impatience:
- $4,000 isn’t that much. It’s nice to have discretionary cash laying around that you were going to use on a two-week vacation to Hawaii.
- 25% of functionality is better than nothing.
In other words they want RTX and they want it now. Sight unseen.
In one flash I see what the compelling marketing issue is with RTX. Given that it can do what the inventors say it can do, the target market is the maturing middle-class weekend warrior. Those runners, cyclists and even triathletes who are struggling with the aging process.
Come up with an affordable and effective version of RTX and it will sell like hotcakes. Maybe not right away but like the heart rate monitor and GPS it will eventually be a typical arrow in an athlete’s quiver.
Based on the extensive data I reviewed, I fully believe that RTX works. Cooling the core is critical to recovery from fatigue. If you can cool the core and limit inflammation then an athlete’s muscles will be capable of more work sooner.
One of the more interesting tests was RTX versus Human Growth Hormones (HGH). After 18 months, the level of performance was the same. If you compare the cost of HGH treatments (not to mention the legality) then $4,000 indeed seems inexpensive.
I returned in early December and talked to both Heller and Grahn for several hours. I began to get a picture of what might be standing in the way of their technology going viral:
- They need funding to fast-track their project and create the less expensive, portable version of RTX. At present they do their development on their department budget. Stanford University generally does not have a funding model for project like this unless the money comes from outside sources such as alumni and corporate contributions and grants and collaborative research.
- They need a marketer –someone skilled at product marketing.
- They may not have identified all of the technology’s applications. RTX technology seems to help people who have multiple sclerosis (MS). It has helped two people with MS for sure. Heller’s wife and Jim Seaton a former marathoner who lives in Washington D.C. The medical possibilities around controlling inflammation could be very compelling, but neither Grahn nor Heller have made this claim because they have not completed the controlled tests that would validate this application.
So what’s the next step?
For RTX to become compelling, the world is going to have to beat down the doors of Stanford and drag the technology into the mainstream of both amateur and professional sports. Then the money will follow and the world might finally figure the depth of RTX’s potential.
Richard Stiller has been running since 1968. He is also a published author. These days he coaches runners who want to turn their running around. You can view his blog at: