Heat, Humidity and Athletic Participation

The beginning of the fall sports pre-season training season is here. It was over 10 years ago that Korey Stringer died tragically due to heat-related illness at the Minnesota Viking’s pre-season training camp. His death sent shockwaves throughout the athletic community. Here we are 10 years later and what has changed? Since July 22nd, there have been five young football player deaths in Florida, Georgia, Pennsylvania and South Carolina – all after athletes participated in practice or conditioning drills.

We have experienced another hot and humid summer with indications this weather pattern will continue through the start of the fall athletic pre-season. This type of weather can create significant problems for student athletes and participants in summer camps. This is a good occasion to reflect on the effects of heat on athletes and other students who are engaged in outdoor activities.

Who is at Risk?
Football, soccer, cross-country, field hockey and girls’ tennis practices start in August. Therefore, athletes and coaches are at risk for heat-related illnesses. However, many summer music programs are also in session, with musicians and staff practicing indoors in non-air conditioned band rooms and outdoors as well.

The Body’s Reaction to Heat Stresses
During hot weather, athletes and others are susceptible to the following conditions. These conditions are progressively more serious. Heat stroke is a life threatening condition!!

  • Heat Cramps:
    Heat Cramps are caused by prolonged exercise or working in the heat with depletion of salt and water due to profuse sweating.Heat cramps must not be taken lightly! The cramps are a warning the body is becoming dehydrated and careful attention must be paid to the situation. Moving to a cooler environment, rest, massage, the ingestion of water and the replacement of the electrolytic imbalance in the body readily alleviate them .
  • Heat Syncope:
    Heat Syncope is weakness, fatigue and fainting due to the depletion of salt and water from profuse sweating and exertion.
  • Heat Exhaustion:
    In heat exhaustion, the body requirements for cooling are inadequate for the physical demands being placed on it. Individuals suffering from heat exhaustion may show a variety of signs and symptoms. These include: extreme sweating; generalized weakness; fainting; dizziness; lightheadedness; headache; nausea; vomiting; loss of appetite and ashen gray skin, which is cold and clammy to touch. Treatment includes immediately removing individuals from physical exertion to a cooler environment; removing excess clothing and protective equipment and beginning a cool-down procedure. An athletic trainer or other qualified individual should be present when attending to individuals exhibiting some/all of these symptoms.
  • Heat Stroke:
    Heat stroke is an acute medical emergency that requires immediate professional emergency medical care!! With heat stroke, the body’s major cooling mechanism no longer functions and sweating usually ceases. This causes the body’s core temperature to rise significantly. These individuals will have hot, dry, red skin. They may experience dizziness, severe headache and dry or “cotton” mouth. Additionally, they will usually be nauseated and may vomit. In more advanced cases, they may experience disorientation or delirium and may fall into a stage of unconsciousness, and can have seizures. These individuals must be immediately transported to a medical facility for medical care.

Prevention and Precautions

  1. Make certain that the student athlete’s medical form and history is up-to-date. Students with a history of heat illnesses should be evaluated before practice begins and watched closely during practices, scrimmages and games.
  2. Coaches should be aware of the physical conditioning of their players and schedule practices as warranted.
  3. There must be gradual acclimation to hot weather. The NCAA Sports Medicine Handbook recommends a gradual increase in intensity and duration of exercise over a 10-day period.
  4. The most important safeguard is the replacement of water. During practice in heat, it is not uncommon for an individual to loose up to a half-gallon in fluids. These fluids should be replaced at an intake rate of 125 to 150 percent before the next practice. Two or three water breaks an hour are recommended.
  5. Move practice times to earlier in the morning or later in the day. Utilize and take advantage of shaded areas. Consider practicing with protective equipment during the morning practice and in shorts and tee shirts in the afternoon.
  6. All participants in summer sports and other pre-school programs should be encouraged to wear loose-fitting, light colored clothing.
  7. Music Departments Chairpersons should consider light colored clothing. While this may not support the school’s colors, however, it is an easy way to alleviate the effects of practicing in the heat. Move practice times to earlier in the morning or later in the day.
  8. Be prepared for emergencies and promptly responding to them.
  9. If the school provides lunch for these pre-season camps, work with the dietician to serve meals which have good nutritional balance, are high in protein and low in fat.
  10. Discourage individuals from drinking large quantities of soda.
  11. Encourage participants to “speak up” if they are not feeling well. Provide an environment that does not focus on “being macho”, but uses and emphasizes common sense.

Additional Resources
While there are numerous resources to turn to, the following two organizations have a significant amount of information available regarding heat, hydration and guidelines for conducting activities in hot environments:

  • National Athletic Trainers Association
  • Gatorade Sports Science Institute