Pressurized Eggs, the Equipment of Champions

2011 was the Djokster’s year.

To paraphrase Mugatu, transformatory designer of the Derelicte fashion collection and – some whisper – eventual successor to Vogue’s iconic Editor-In-Chief Anna Wintour: “It’s that damn Novak! He’s so hot right now!” And really, with ten titles (three majors, five Master’s 1000 events), 70W-6L (with most losses due to injury excluding doubles) and $12,595,903 in justprize money who can really argue?

“It’s that damn Novak! He’s so hot right now!”


For those who are thinking “Well he’s been Top Ten for a while now, no?” just compare this to 2010, where he achieved a (relatively) measly two titles and 2009 where he won five (but only one Master’s 1000 event) and even the most plebian tennis non-enthusiast can realize that something notable has happened. Currently in 2012, he’s well on his way to his Australian Open title defense.

So what precisely is behind his rise? In reality, only Novak’s team really knows but that doesn’t stop pundits, theorists and even conspiracy theorists from expounding endlessly on his equipment changes: “It’s that damn YouTek racket change! Youtek’s so hot right now!” his training with Lady Gaga: “It’s that damn Lad…”

Wait, what?

Indeed, when the Wall Street Journal published an article entitled “Novak Djokovic’s Secret: Sitting in a Pressurized Egg,” the reason for his inexorable rise became immediately apparent: The Djokster was in league with Mommy Monster.

Peer within the semi-opaque depths of the egg, and one sees presumably Lady Gaga arriving at the 53rd annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles, California February 13, 2011. Source: REUTERS/Danny Moloshok (UNITED STATES)

Consider Lady Gaga’s egg-citing…



No, that’s worse…



I’m not even going to touch her reason(s) for this publicity stunt as her outlandish entrance clearly flustered even these hardened entertainment journalists.

So back to reality.

The egg in question that Novak “trains” in is seen above.  In reality, he more or less naps in it and while it grossly appears to be a more Star Trek escape pod-like version of Lady Gaga’s, the two actually have no connection to each other. 

To the best of my knowledge, at least.

Though sleek with a certain postmodern bent, it is without the flair of Gaga’s semi-translucent, opalized exterior stylization complete with bioluminescent track lighting and multiple serfs. On the flip side, while Djokovic’s model is constructed with a valve system to prevent CO2 buildup, Gaga may have eschewed this practical engineering detail in lieu of bedizenment which goes some way in explaining why she appeared to be attempting to claw her way out later in the Grammy Awards red carpet video.

The WSJ article claims that Djokovic has been using the device since the 2010 U.S. Open in which he lost to Rafael Nadal.  The device Djokovic has admitted to using is made by CVAC Systems, a California-based company for – as WSJ reports – the princely sum of seventy-five thousand U.S. dollars. Incidentally, most individuals (including Novak, not Gaga) actually travel to the eggs to purchase time within them rather than purchase the eggs themselves.

So…. What is it?

CVAC stands for the company trademarked “Cyclic Variations in Adaptive Conditioning,” as a quick visit to their website shows. While the average person will have just about as much of a clue about what that means as the Kardashians have about real life, the message – as well as the slideshow of the numerous healthy, happy, attractive individuals that greets you – soothes, and the process itself according to the website is a safe, natural and trademarked:

“effort-free physical conditioning methodology unlike anything else on Earth.”

Somewhere out there, a crop of couch potatoes just perked up.

Unfortunately, they do not immediately explain what precisely this “effort free physical conditioning” is they are selling. Per their website:

“The Cyclic Variations in Adaptive Conditioning™ (CVAC™) process is a patent-pending methodology that applies rhythm-based changes to pressure, temperature and air. It works within the natural / breathable atmosphere and does not employ chemical or nitrogen / oxygen separators to manipulate concentration of oxygen. A unique high-performance altitude simulator is required to deliver the CVAC process in timed exposures called CVAC sessions.”

Somewhere out there, the couch potatoes’ eyes just glazed over though their brains have continued looping the phrase “effort free physical conditioning.”

The site goes on to explain that a CVAC session finds the individual experiencing alternating cycles of simulated high- and low-pressure environments within the device and they “hypothesize these changes stimulate an individual’s natural adaptation response to environment.”  Which in layman terms seems to indicate that the egg provides an artificially induced alternating high and low altitude environment.

The CVAC website goes on to state that “The experience is unique to the individual,” but state anecdotal reports from champion athletes (presumably also Djokovic) that corroborate with the scientific findings in this paper.

Could this be Djokovic’s big secret?

One major theory everyone knows is that athletes training at higher altitudes will eventually develop more red blood cells as they acclimate due to physiological compensation for lower barometric pressures and less oxygen intake. If they then travel to lower altitudes where oxygen intake is greater, this might provide an advantage during competition as the athlete can shuttle more oxygen to his/her muscles in order to help produce more energy.  What does the CVAC provide that altitude training doesn’t?

A simulated dynamic versus the static pressure environment altitude training is based on.

Imagine if you will, that you are part of the 1% and that you’ve just had Virgin Galactic parachute you onto a 20,000 ft mountain to meditate and hence physiologically acclimate.  This is the static method. Now imagine that you are part of the 0.001% and you’ve chartered the flight solo and paid the pilot extra to fly loops going from ground level to various gradually rising peak levels over and over in an unpressurized cabin.  This is roughly akin (perhaps minus the fear of death) to the dynamic environment that the CVAC provides – repeated cycles of going from a low altitude to a high one, providing an environment that simulates intermittent hypoxia.

The main question the study answers is whether a 7-week regimen involving these alternating pressure conditions will result in acclimation and oxygen saturation levels that are different (and hopefully greater) than that of other previous protocols, whether static or dynamic.

So let’s take a look.

First, the total number of participants is small (male=9, female=4) and the ages range quite a bit from about 20 to low 40s in both men and women. However their VO2 scores – the maximum capacity of one’s body to transport and use oxygen during exercise/a general indicator reflecting fitness – would indicate that everyone was in either good or excellent aerobic health for their age assuming that the lower VO2 scores corresponded with increased age as that would be embarrassing otherwise.

Participants were grouped and assigned egg sessions in this manner though it doesn’t distinguish how the guys and girls were separated:

1 – 60 minutes, 3 days a week (n = 3)
2 – 80 minutes, 3 days a week (n = 2)
3 – 60 minutes, 5 days a week (n = 8)

The conditioning protocol involved the participant sitting within the womb — sorry, egg – and running a proprietary computer program that provided continuously alternating simulated pressures from a specific low altitude to a specific high altitude for 20 minutes before repeating, for the entire duration of the session.

They then gradually increased the maximum altitude programming each week by about 1220 meters (4,002 ft) over the 7 week period with the highest altitude achieved being 6858 m (22,500 ft).  The minimums for each week were somewhat unclear.  The researchers also stuck altimeters in with the participants to ensure that the simulated changes in altitude weren’t faked.

You can get a better idea of the stated highs and lows during each session below:

1st week altitude max: 3200 m (10,550 ft)
2nd week altitude max: 3200 m (10,550 ft)
3rd week altitude max: 4420 m (14,500 ft)
4th week altitude max: 5639 m (18,500 ft)
5th to 7th week altitude max, min: 6858 m (22,500 ft), 610 m (2,000 ft)

This is what the 20 minute program of simulated altitude changes looked like for the second week:

What Hetzler et al. found was that oxygen saturation was significantly increased at all the altitudes they tested, and that “The magnitude of change was similar across altitudes examined, ranging from a 3.4% to a 5.9% increase,” with perhaps a trend toward larger changes at the higher altitudes.  What they could not say, was whether CVAC was the most efficient way of increasing the body’s capacity for oxygen saturation as ultimately, the changes elicited were similar to that of other conditioning methods – though the time needed to elicit said responses were somewhat faster in CVAC’s case than some of the others.

As I mentioned, the CVAC website states that “The experience is unique to the individual,” which while perhaps not perfectly inspirational, is likely within the bell curve of human physiology.  However, the overall increases in this particular study as they relate to tennis were substantial.  I don’t know what Djokovic’s egg regimen actually is, but changes of 5.9% would surely translate to a huge advantage in a game that requires repetitive utilization of the brain and majority of the body’s muscles over the course of a few hours.  This increase in red blood cell count and energy production adds up.  If you’re not convinced about the difference 6% can make in tennis, hit with your racket against the wall for an hour nonstop, recover, then borrow a racket that is 6% heavier and do the same on the morrow.

While CVAC likely works to the individual’s degree, the downside is that you’ll have to book time in the egg before every single match for some as-of-yet indeterminate optimal amount of time.  I suppose there’s always blood transfusion or recombinant erythropoietin, but that’s only if the cost of the number of CVAC sessions you need becomes greater than that and blood doping is legalized. 

Not that I’m condoning blood doping.

Regardless of whether this is truly part of Novak’s secret to greatness, I’d like to think it has at the very least made him into an even more colorful character, and that’s great news for the gentlemanly game of tennis.

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