Rising temperatures during the summer can make exercise a challenge. Generally, overall performance declines as the temperature increases above our comfort levels. Sometimes, the effects of heat can be more severe. Sadly, about four or five high school athletes in the U.S. die each year from heat related illness. Thankfully there are simple steps to take to minimize your chance of experiencing the deleterious effects of heat.
Every year this time of year people are reminded to dress lightly, drink more water and other fluids, and decrease activity especially during the hottest hours of the day. These are all good tips but athletes need to stay active, and some sports require playing during very hot and humid conditions.
Why do some athletes seem to handle the heat better than others? Although part of the answer is related to genes and body type, a big part is how the athlete prepares for the heat.
First, allowing your body to adapt, or acclimatize, to the heat is the key to avoiding heat related problems. This involves exposing yourself to heat with a lower level of exertion than you are used to, and gradually increasing the time and intensity of your workouts in the heat. It takes at least five days to see significant adaptations, and often your body will continue to adapt further for up to three months.
Listening to your body is the second key to avoiding heat problems. The human body usually is very good about telling the brain when it is getting too hot. Usually if your body can't stay cool enough by using its normal measures like sweating, you will become fatigued. If you become more tired than usual in your workout, take a break, get some fluids and and find a cool spot to rest for a while. DO NOT try to just play through this fatigue, as this could be the start of heat illness. This can lead to heat exhaustion, heat stroke, and ultimately death.
Another way to avoid heat illness is to train using the "buddy" system. Sometimes signs of heat problems are subtle and you and your buddy can monitor each other for changes in mood or mental status as well as fatigue, and prompt you to cool down. If someone has significant mental status changes or severe fatigue due to heat, 911 should be called and they should be cooled as soon as possible.
If athletes repeatedly have problems in the heat, they may benefit from visiting a physician trained in managing heat illnesses. Hopefully, by taking these steps, your body will keep you "cool" in the summer.