Crouched in a bucket inside UConn’s heat lab, Ironman triathlon finisher Adam Chase brushed water and sweat from his body as a researcher poured water over his head.
Three other researchers held high the plastic tarp that lined the bucket and would catch every drop falling from Chase, 51. Moments later, they tossed in the towels he’d just used to mop his face and back as he ran for 45 minutes at a 7-mph clip in the 94-degree room.
“Sweat soup,” one athlete said as she waited for her turn inside the Korey Stringer Institute’s new, $700,000 heat lab.
This salty concoction is what the University of Connecticut kinesiologists would weigh and test to determine how much Chase had sweat during his sweltering workout, how many electrolytes he’d lost and other metrics he might be able to use to improve his performance and lessen the risks of heat stroke from extreme exertion.
“It’s not half as glamorous as it sounds,” Luke Belval, director of research, joked after describing the process.
The same can’t be said for the lab itself, a 450-square-foot facility that opened Sept. 22 in Gampel Pavilion. After a three-year process, the Korey Stringer Institute unveiled a major upgrade made possible by $350,000 from UConn, $100,000 from Mission Athletecare – an active wear and thermo-regulation technology company that secured the lab’s naming rights – and other donors like the NFL.
The lab’s chamber includes $20,000 treadmills, a cold-water immersion tub, strong air flow that mimics the outdoors and a climate-controlled bathroom. It simulates balmy and humid conditions for athletes who come to UConn for hours-long sessions.
In temperatures that can reach 110 degrees and 90 percent humidity, researchers work with NFL and NCAA teams, the military and apparel companies to analyze the human body’s response to extreme conditions.
On the recent Thursday when the lab studied Chase, of Colorado, it also drew professional athletes who’d traveled to Storrs from Vermont, northern California and Lithuania.
And the lab’s reputation precedes its new digs. UConn researchers have been studying the effects of heat and humidity on exertion for 25 years, since Gampel was newly built and the heat lab inside of it was no bigger than a dorm room..
Researchers would control humidity by toggling between household humidifiers and dehumidifiers. They removed ceiling tiles above the treadmills to accommodate taller athletes.
At some point, someone slapped a sticker that reads, “FUN ZONE,” above the entrance to the lab.
“I’m sure in 1999, it was state of the art,” said Robert Huggins, the institute’s vice president of research and athlete performance and safety.
Even so, it was with that lab that the Korey Stringer Institute was founded in 2010 by its CEO, Doug Casa, UConn’s director of athletic training education.
He and the family of Korey Stringer, the Minnesota Vikings offensive tackle who died from exertional heat stroke in 2001, hoped with research and education, they could maximize athletic performance and save lives.
Since then, the institute has helped demonstrate that deaths like Stringer’s are preventable with quick, correct treatment – like the kind staff members provided while doing case studies of Falmouth Road Races in Massachusetts.
The lab has studied the effects of cold water immersion and cooling tarps, hydration and caffeination, humidity and sleep.
And it opened its doors to not only athletes – and, naturally, research participants – but people who’ve already suffered heat stroke as well as laborers and military members who want to prepare for hot and humid conditions.
“It was a basic facility we were able to do some cool things in,” Casa said of the old lab. “But this one really ups our ability to help athletes, warfighters and laborers who have to do intense work in the heat.”
“The potential for research and service for people who need help is greater than it’s ever been before.”
Over the course of three years, Casa sought ideas for the new Korey Stringer Institute by visiting high-end heat labs across North America, like the Nike Sport Research Lab in Portland and facilities at the University of Arkansas and University of Ottowa.
He says he borrowed the best features he could find and added some more. This winter, the lab will install radiant heat lamps to mimic the effects of sunlight and cloudy skies.
But already, the weeks-old lab is getting plenty of traffic on campus.
UConn students are not charged to use the facility like typical clients, and the women’s cross country team has taken to using the equipment a few times a week, as Chase, the professional ultrarunner, and Lea Davison, a two-time U.S. Olympian mountain biker, learned when they began their own warm ups.
Source: Hartford Courant