A Small Box Filled With Steam

The first thing you need to know is that right now, in Britain, it’s hot.

Not actual hot, obviously. Britain hot. Like mid to high 20s Celsius. Pleasant, you might call it. I mean, I wouldn’t, but you might.

The second thing is that right now, in the northeastern Italian foothill town of Maniago, it’s hot. High 20s. Early 30s, perhaps. Not much rain.

The third thing – actually, this should probably have been the first thing, but here in Britain, we like to talk about the weather – is that in two weeks’ time, Hannah will be racing in Maniago, at the 2018 Para-Cycling Road World Championships.

She’s not back on the British Cycling programme, and this selection in itself signifies nothing as to whether she’s going to be, but they’re taking her to the world championships. They didn’t have to do that, so it’s got to be more than nothing. If it’s going to turn into something, though, she’ll need to give it everything.

And so, because a British heatwave doesn’t last for ever, she’s spending her time on an static bike at Manchester Metropolitan University, in a small box filled with steam.

She’s known about it for a while – Sarah Storey has been using it for ages, on and off. To give it its proper name, it’s an environmental chamber, and it can be engineered to provide air temperatures from 50ºC all the way down to -40º, as well – if you need it to – as depleted levels of oxygen. Altitude’s not going to be a problem at these world championships, but heat might be, so when Hannah got selected and one of her team mates told her that they’d been heat training for some time, off she went to the box.

Ideally, she’d be doing something called ‘adaptation’. If you’re doing adaptation, you basically live in the box for a couple of weeks. Your body adjusts to what seems to be the way of things now; out you come; and then a few days before competition, back in you pop again, just to remind it who’s boss.

But Hannah couldn’t give it two weeks straight, in part because the chamber at MMU isn’t actually open every day, so she and her coach John have decided to go for ‘familiarisation’, which is a similar programme, except that you don’t have to do the whole thing back to back. So it’s a couple of hours in the box for each of 15 days, putting in different efforts, working at different temperatures, trialling things out.

The process is a happy blend of the technological and the old-school. Hannah climbs on, hooks herself up to a power meter and a heart rate monitor and then off she goes; and next to her, a guy called Steve makes notes on a clipboard, and every five minutes sticks a thermometer in her ear to make sure she’s not about to pass out.

And bit by bit, she learns more about fatigue – about exactly how much harder it is in the heat to put down her normal powers, about how much she can afford to give. Then the data goes off to John, and he tells her what she needs to do next time.

The training comes with a couple of side-effects. On the plus side, heat is good for Hannah’s muscles. Sadly, it also makes her feet expand, which means that her hard carbon splints start to press into her legs, so she’s been working with the university – she’s studying there anyway – to get hold of some splints that sit outside the shoe, and hopefully that should sort things out.

Will it all help?

We’ll let you know.

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