Novak Djokovic's rapid launch to tennis stardom and number one ranking this summer has left many of his fans and competitors asking, "What's his secret?"
A special training routine? A lucky jock-strap? No -- just a spaceship-like pressurized pod that gives him super-human healing powers, according to comments made by the athlete last week.
At first, the 24-year-old Serb credited his recent sharpness on the courts to his new gluten-free diet, but last week he revealed something even more unorthodox in his arsenal to obtain athletic edge: the CVAC Pod.
"I think it really helps -- not with muscle but more with recovery after an exhausting set," he said at a sponsor event last week according to the Wall Street Journal. "It's like a spaceship. It's very interesting technology."
The pod may look like the bizarre synthetic egg that hatched Lady Gaga at this year's Video Music Awards, but the CVAC is being taken seriously by a number of professional athletes looking for the next big thing in performance enhancement, including Olympic cyclist John Howard and martial artist Rampage Jackson.
CVAC, short for Cyclic Variations in Adaptive Conditioning, simulates rapid changes in altitude, which reportedly stimulates the body on a cellular level, increasing oxygen absorption, promoting muscle recovery, and boosting the lymphatic system.
The concept of using altitude and pressure changes to promote better athletic performance is nothing new -- the fact that high altitudes increase the number of oxygen- transporting red blood cells in your system has been studied for years. This is why many athletes will spend time at high altitudes during training season to increase their body's oxygen absorption, and by extension their stamina and athletic performance.
The shocking -- and controversial -- claim of the CVAC system, however, is that it accomplishes these bodily changes in just a couple 20 minute sessions a week.
"It does between 100 and 200 pressure changes in 20 minutes," says Allen Ruszkowski, president/CEO of CVAC Systems, which makes the device. "Typically the body requires several weeks before it adapts to altitude, but by changing the pressure in very specific patterns, we can reduce the amount of time that someone has to spend at altitude," he says.
Studies done at the University of Hawaii and Stanford University have offered support for these claims and more clinical trials are underway, according to Ruszkowski.
Dr. Benjamin Levine, a professor of medicine at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and a long-time expert in using altitude changes to enhance athletic performance, is dubious that the CVAC chamber can really do all it promises.
Levine, who directs the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine at Texas Health Presbyterian, developed the concept of "live high, train low" almost 20 years ago. The basic idea was that living at high altitudes causes the body to adapt and produce more red blood cells, but training at that altitude is more difficult and hence limits how hard an athlete can work out -- hence the "train low," meaning that athletes would come down from high altitudes once a day to train in locations closer to sea level.
With "live high, train low" however, it takes athletes at least 12 hours of high altitude exposure each day over three to four weeks to really see the effects.