The Turbine makes pretty big claims about improved airflow, and celebrity endorsement from the likes of Tour de France champion Chris Froome, but Techly isn’t convinced that the fairly messy trade-offs are worth the marginal gains.
Every endurance athlete will admit, in their weaker moments, that they will happily buy performance improvement when they can.
The unending search for better equipment, to give you that extra edge, drives billions of dollars worth of spending each year on running shoes, bikes, aerodynamic gadgets, nutrition products for performance and recovery. Nike were awarded 540 patents in 2013 alone.
Lighter, faster, stiffer, more aero, more expensive. Products ratchet up their performance claims relentlessly each year, giving the people buying them an excuse to upgrade.
And why not? Most people competing in endurance events (and certainly the ones buying their own equipment) are firmly in the amateur ranks, where the time available for training imposes severe limits on what performances are possible. You’ve got to look for advantages where you can.
‘Marginal gains’ is the phrase at Team Sky press conferences, the philosophy of adding up all the little 1% differences until they make a big difference to your overall performance. ‘Every little helps’ as another famous British brand puts it.
It’s a philosophy that fits for manufacturers with things to sell. I mean, if all of these tiny things make such a big difference, you can’t afford to neglect them, no matter how tiny, can you?
I know all about this stuff. I’m a washed-up former middle distance runner who switched to cycling because the opportunities to buy expensive carbon fibre things are better.
And so I’m reviewing The Turbine.
The Turbine what it is, and the price
This Chris Froome-endorsed gadget goes up your nose and claims to improve airflow through your nostrils by a whopping “up to 38%”. It’s got a fleet of high-profile international stars being photographed wearing it: Jack Bobridge, Robbie McEwen, and more.
The Turbine resembles one of those nose clips used by synchronised swimmers, but does the opposite thing: you stick it up your nose and it opens ups your nasal passages.
Pretty simple, really. It comes in three sizes, and a starter pack containing one of each will cost you AUD$19.95. When you’ve decided on your size, a three-pack costs $29.95.
Each Turbine can be used up to 10 times, so that’s near enough to $1 a go.
It’s made by Rhinomed, a Melbourne-based medical devices company that also offers a similar device called Mute, which is designed for people with mild to moderate sleep apnoea. The company is conducting clinical trials into its effectiveness as a sleep-aide.
But does The Turbine help performance?
Well, we all know that getting enough oxygen is a critical part of any sport where you’re operating at or near your aerobic capacity. Sounds good, right?
After snapping a few photos of the rubbery yellow devices, I opted for the medium and inserted it into my face.
A rush of cool air hit the upper reaches of my sinuses. Refreshing. An undeniable feeling that something was holding my nostrils open and more air than usual was definitely getting in there. A slight pinching of the septum, but nothing too severe. Each Turbine size is adjustable to get a perfect fit.
I was at home, alone, having shied away from wearing it on my mid-week cycling club ride, self-conscious. I’ve seen a few people wearing these during local time trials, but in my experience time trialists are way past being concerned about looking silly.
A glance in the mirror confirmed that I looked like some of the cool kids I buy coffee from, with their septum piercings and tatts. It’s a strong look.
Onto the stationary bike trainer and into a session designed to imitate 30 minutes of steady climbing at just below threshold, followed by some higher-intensity efforts. A good test of aerobic performance.
The Turbine was comfortable, and although I was aware of its presence the Turbine website reckons that’s part of the benefit, because it helps you focus on good breathing technique.
The following day I took the Turbine out on the road for a Sunday morning session. The crisp Melbourne winter air immediately rushed into my nasal passages like the breeze over a waterfall. Unfortunately it was quite a lot like a breeze over a waterfall, because all of that cold air set my nose running like Iguazu falls. Problem.
Any endurance athlete worth their salt knows how to blow a cheeky snot-rocket like a champ, but when you’ve got a piece of yellow plastic holding your nostrils open, you’re out of options. Within minutes I had a torrent of snot and goo leaking down my face. If this is disgusting to read, imagine how it felt.
I persevered for half an hour, but eventually I couldn’t handle it (and my sleeve was soaked) and seeing that I was off to ride with friends, the Turbine went in my pocket to spare them the horror.
While I was wearing it, I can’t tell you if the Turbine increased my power output or reduced the energy I spent getting oxygen into my lungs. Any subjective difference was small enough that I couldn’t feel it, and objective measurement would require a physiology lab.
I noticed that despite my conscious effort to breathe through my nose for science, as soon as the intensity became serious, I subconsciously started breathing through my mouth anyway.
And I know why. Back in the day, when I was young and innocent, I harboured ambitions of being an exercise physiologist. I even got a degree in it.
That career didn’t turn out, but I do know that the ability to consume oxygen (your VO2max) is one of the big factors in determining your performance in aerobic events, and that elite athletes in sports like distance running, cycling, cross-country skiing and rowing tend to score very high on VO2max tests.
Getting oxygen to your muscles is hugely important, because muscle cells need oxygen for aerobic metabolism, to produce energy and keep working over long periods.
So far so good for a device that increases airflow.
But actually getting oxygen to your muscle cells involves a whole series of systems that work together: your diaphragm muscles, your lungs, your blood’s ability to absorb and carry oxygen (this has been the main target for dopers using EPO and blood transfusions over the last couple of decades), your heart’s ability to pump blood around your body, your arteries and capillaries that carry the blood to the muscles, and supply of the enzymes in your muscle cells to perform the energy-converting reactions.
It’s complicated, but getting more air into your lungs doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get more oxygen to your muscles, if any of the systems further down the chain are already at full capacity.
In fact, for healthy trained athletes with properly functioning lungs (the people most likely to buy the Turbine) it’s probable that air supply at your lungs is not the step where your VO2max is being held back.
Also, if oxygen supply into the lungs is limiting performance, why wouldn’t you just breathe through your mouth? If you’ve ever had your VO2max tested (or even seen someone being tested) you’ll know that it’s done using a mouthpiece and a nose clip, not the other way around. There’s a reason for this: your mouth is excellent at sucking in air.
In fact that’s exactly what I found while testing the Turbine: during sustained exercise near my threshold, my body demanded I switch to some good old fashioned mouth-breathing, which made the slight annoyance of wearing the Turbine seem a bit, well, pointless.
In a race situation where things get really frantic, I reckon there’s no way I’d be breathing through my nose, and no way I’d want snot pouring down my face like something from a low-budget horror movie.
My own underwhelming experience with the device is just one anecdote, and I came to it with skeptical eyes.
I’m not convinced that the sports science behind the Turbine can actually produce any measurable performance improvement for the average serious amateur athlete, but then again I can’t see how it could reduce your performance (as long as you don’t find the gushing snot problem distracting).
It’s definitely possible that some people get a mental boost from the feeling of air rushing through their nostrils, and that helps their performance. After all, there’s heaps of evidence out there that the placebo effect is real.
The Turbine has lots of endorsements from athletes who feel that it helps them. I’m not one of them, but if you want to spend a relatively small amount on a device that’s certainly no worse than hundreds of other products making performance-enhancement claims, then by all means give it a snot. Sorry, I mean shot.