Training in the heat is a controversial topic. When it comes to some sports, heat training can serve as a way to adapt to the extreme environments in which the sport takes place. Take for example the 2019 World Athletic Championships in Doha, Qatar, or the Ironman World Championships on the Big Island of Hawaii. Heat acclimatization was, and is, required for sporting events that take place in extreme conditions. Therefore, such a protocol is advised and beneficial for performance in those conditions.
However, when training in the heat is not managed properly it can be costly, especially in youth sport.
Under normal circumstances, non-COVID 19, it is around this time in the year when we hear reports of youth and student-athletes collapsing during summer practices.
Over the last number of years, there have been countless reports of athletes, particularly American football players who have suffered serious heatstrokes. Clinically known as exertional heat illness (EHI), EHI is on the rise across American youth and amateur sport. EHI is reported to affect thousands of athletes each year and consistently ranks in the top three causes of death among athletes. Across a four year period, from 2005 to 2009, EIH affected nearly 10,000 American high school athletes only. Of all American sports, football players are reported to be 11 times more at risk due to the combative nature of the sport and practices, protective equipment and size of athletes.
Why sport and the heat doesn’t always mix well
The reason why the heat and humidity of North American summers are so deadly, is because the human body simply isn’t able to cool itself effectively. The body’s natural cooling mechanism, sweat, cannot be evaporated due to the humidity in the air. (Note: humidity is a measure of the water content in the air. The higher the humidity, the greater density of the air, making evaporation minimal. It is this evaporation of sweat that naturally cools the body.)
With rising global temperatures and a correlating rise in EHI risk and incidence, effective protocols need to be put in place to prevent EHI and treat it if it does occur.
What can be done
In recent years, several sport governing bodies and national associations have come out with guidelines and best practices for gameplay in the heat and how to prevent EHI. If you are a parent, coach, athletic trainer or any individual responsible for the health of an athlete, you should inquire about such guidelines. In the meantime, here are a few best practices.
Cancel practices or games.
First and foremost, if you do not have the equipment or protocols in place to manage the risk of EHI, practices or games should be cancelled and rescheduled.
Reschedule for the early morning or late evening.
To significantly reduce the risk of EHI, switch training times over to the early AM or late PM when temperatures are lower and pose less of a risk.
Setting up cooling stations.
Having stations on hand were athletes can remove protective equipment and cool themselves is an effective measure to take. Water tents, ice bucks, water bottles, electrolytes and forces of energy should be on hand.
Increasing the number and duration of breaks.
A fixed interval of breaks needs to be implemented. For example, every 10 minutes. Sport governing bodies should have a standard and protocol for when temperatures climb and are deemed to pose a health risk.
Listen and observe.
While all the guidelines and protocols can be implemented, parents, coaches and trainers need to listen and observe their athletes.