Beating the Heat

By Dave Ellis, RD

Athletes who compete and train in the heat have to take precautions before, during and after these exposures. Every year, countless athletes suffer dehydration and heat-related illness, or worse. “Too much, too soon” in the heat, and athletes can break muscle down to the point where it becomes life threatening (rhabdomyolysis). Dry mouth, dry eyes, thirst, little to no sweat or urine generation, dizziness and big drops in endurance are all signs that you are dehydrated and potentially in the early stages of suffering heat injury. The higher the humidity along with the heat, the greater the potential for dehydration and heat injury. Prevention is the key because once an athlete has suffered from severe heat injury, they will express greater vulnerability for years to come.

Training in the kind of heat and humidity that you are going to be expected to compete in will help you acclimate. Acclimating to the heat must be a gradual process of ramping up the duration of time spent in the heat, as well as a gradual process of ramping up the reps taken in the heat. To be clear, NO rubber suits, saunas or oxygen restricting masks are necessary for this process of acclimatization. Any combination of caffeinated products or pre-workout energy drinks should NOT be used when training in the heat. You are going to want your heart rate to come down between sprints, not stay elevated from the actions of any combination of stimulants typical of pre-workout energy products.

A well-conditioned and acclimated athlete can exert themselves and recover with their heart rate and body temperature lowering between reps. Athletes who are the most vulnerable in the heat are those who are under-rested, under-hydrated, under-fueled and possibly attempting to run on a combination of caffeine sources from energy drinks.

Why do pre-workout energy drinks make us more vulnerable to heat injury? Caffeine and stimulants mask the burn we feel during exercise exertion, which in the short-term can improve performance, but when you mask the perception of exertion in the heat, that can set the stage for generating excessive body temperature (core temperature or muscle temperature). Not feeling the exertion might just mean that someone goes longer and harder than they should in the heat, and that is where the breakdown of muscle can occur. This results in rhabdomyolysis that, in extreme cases, can result in organ failure and death.

Health professionals who work with athletes who train and compete in the heat are always looking for ways to mitigate dehydration and heat-related injuries. Organizations like the Kory Stringer Institute track annual deaths of athletes from all sources, shining a light on the realities of what can happen when athletes do too much, too soon. It’s a sobering reality for Sports Dietitians, Athletic Trainers, and Strength Coaches to reflect back on the catastrophic injury statistics each year. These health professionals are all trained to participate in emergency action plans to respond to catastrophic events with athletes where every second counts on calling for help and taking appropriate actions.

Just as “too much, too quick” can be catastrophic when training or competing in the heat, too much in too short a time can be potentially catastrophic when consuming stimulant-laden foods or dietary supplements. Going out in the heat when using these stimulant-laden foods or supplements can escalate your vulnerability for heat injury. We can all do better by following these precautionary measures:

1) Show up to practice or competitions rested, fueled and hydrated. Catchers and starting pitchers are possibly the most vulnerable players on the field, so take precautions to hyper-hydrate with electrolyte-rich hydration formulas that are caffeine free!

2) Don’t wait until you are thirsty to drink. We are imperfect in that our drive to drink falls behind the rate at which we sweat. Every time you come off the field, drink liberally and get in the shade if possible.

3) Water and electrolyte-rich sports drinks will be key in replacing what you are losing in your sweat that water alone can’t cover (primarily sodium and potassium).

4) If you are sick or dehydrated before arriving at practice or competition, let your coach know your circumstances so they can check in with you and give you more frequent hydration breaks in the shade.

5) If you start to exhibit signs of dehydration or heat illness, let a coach know you need a break immediately. Something as simple as putting some ice or a cold towel up around the back of your neck and head while taking a break in the shade can help you cool down. Something as simple as submerging an overheating athlete in cold ice water can save their life! Coaches and parents should be prepared for those hot days as well. Seconds count, so have a plan for the hottest days. Shade, hydration, cooling strategies and even a cold kiddie pool with ice water in it under the shade can save lives. Have an emergency action plan.

6) As soon as you can get out of sweat-drenched clothing after a workout or competition in the heat, change into something dry and breathable, and keep the sun off your head and neck. Consuming cold foods helps too; frozen fruit and sports drinks frozen to slush all help bring that core body temperature down while drinking liberally from sports drinks and water.

7) As soon as you are cooled off enough to eat, get some food down from something you will find palatable on a hot day like deli meat sandwiches, cold pasta salad and colder cut fruit.

Play it smart with these guidelines and stay safe this summer!

Dave Ellis, RD, CSCS is a contributor to the USA Baseball Sport Development Blog, and is a veteran Sports RD with over three decades of experiencing working at the highest level of sports. Dave was the first president of the Collegiate and Professional Sports RDs Association (CPSDA) and is currently CPSDA’s Ambassador over all matter Food and Supplement Security related, as well as the President of Sports Alliance Inc. and creator of the Fueling Tactics System. Dave is also the Consulting Registered Dietitian for MLB/MLBPA and USA Baseball.