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In the last month, I’ve posted about palm cooling, face-warming, and a study that suggested that some of the slowdown we experience in hot weather is attributable to the brain rather than body overheating. The latest addition to this theme: a study on neck cooling, published online in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise a few days ago.
The gist: Seven cyclists performed a 15-minute time trial in 30 C heat, after riding for 75 minutes to heat themselves up. They did it once as a control, once while wearing a “cooling collar” (essentially an icepack that fits around their neck while riding), and once with the cooling collar being replaced every 30 minutes to keep it colder. As expected, the cooling collar improved performance in the time trial by about 7% (this has been demonstrated before); but replacing the cooling collar didn’t produce any further gains, even though any cooling effect had disappeared long before the time trial started.
What’s most interesting is that there were no differences between groups in any of the physiological variables they measured — rectal temperature, hormones like seratonin and dopamine, lactate levels, etc. The differences appeared to be purely perceptual:
It has been proposed that during self-paced exercise the intensity is regulated by a complex network of feedback and feed-forward systems regarding the physiological state of the body to allow for the completion of the task within homeostatic limits. The data from the current study and from a previous investigation using the same protocol suggest that cooling the neck enhances preloaded time-trial performance in a hot environment by masking the extent of the thermal strain…
Or, to put it simply, it’s in your head. That doesn’t mean that heat doesn’t have real physiological effects — just that, in most cases, our brains take the heat into account to slow us down prematurely.