For athletes, spring and summer are the most anticipated seasons for training and competition purposes alike. It's the season of some of the world's largest athletic competitions including the Tour de France, the British Open, the World Swimming Championships, the US Tennis Open and the Ironman 70.3 series. However, the summer heat and humidity brings health challenges for athletes to tackle as they bustle to train and compete outdoors.
The heat and sunshine of the summer season are favorable for two popular sports, running and open-water swimming. However, temperature extremes can pose various health dangers to runners and swimmers.
Health risks for these athletes range in seriousness from dehydration to multiple heat illnesses, including heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Without proper education, training and pre-race precautions summer sporting events can prove to be fatal.
Dangers of Running in the Heat
Despite monitoring the actual temperature outside, apparent temperature is just as important to keep in mind before heading out for a workout, according to Founder, Owner and Head Coach at The Running Center LLC in New York City Mindy Solkin.
"The duo of air temperature and humidity, apparent temperature is what it feels like outside," Solkin said. Runners specifically are on the list for athletes that are at a higher risk for health problems due to excessive temperatures if precautions are not taken. For runners, health risks stem from the anatomy behind how the human body deals with excessive heat.
"A runner's body in the summer is almost always in a state of dehydration," Solkin said.
When heat and humidity are major factors, the body sweats to cool itself, but a lot of times sweat rolls off the body too quickly and is not given a chance to help cool the body.
This results in a constant battle between the legs and skin, which both want the limited supply of blood and oxygen to keep flowing. Eventually, one will lose and the result will be either dehydration or overheating, Solkin explained to AccuWeather.com.
It is this constant balancing act, that inspires some athletes to push their bodies to the limit and face a beat the heat challenge in the renowned steamy national park known as Death Valley.
Known as one of the world's toughest foot races, Death Valley, Calif., will host the annual Badwater Ultramarathon. The race is 135 miles long, forcing athletes to battle temperatures as high as 130 degrees, a temperature at which heat stroke is highly likely according to Solkin, all the while racing through the park's shade-less and dry desert terrain.
Currently, there are no official parameters set to monitor high temperatures prior to running races. On race day, judgement is given to race officials and staff to determine whether high temperatures are too risky for the safety of the participating athletes. To help ensure successful running, see the tips below on running in the heat from Solkin.
1. Acclimate your body to the warm temperatures by running consistently in the heat.
2. Don't run in the heat if you haven't been running; first, get in running shape on a treadmill.
3. "Run when your shadow is taller than you are." Avoid running during peak hours, noon to 3p.m.
4. Wear light-colored micro-fiber clothes, a hat and UVA/UVB blocking sunglasses.
5. After a run, drink fluids.
6. Before a long run, stash a freezing water bottle somewhere on your course, so you can take a quick break and avoid overheating.
The Perils of Open-Water Swimming
While severe weather, water currents and marine life are common threats in open-water swimming, the health ailments of dehydration and heat stroke are notorious in water sports as well as land sports.
Montreal will host the World Swimming Championships this summer. Swimmers will partake in a variety of events including a summer favorite, open-water swimming.
"It's important that open-water races and training include mandatory water breaks and feeding stations," Assistant Swimming Coach of The Pennsylvania State University Thad Schultz said.
Due to the sport's nature, unlike running, water and food cannot be given to or taken by the athletes along the course, so docks and boats must be set up in order to ensure that swimming athletes replenish properly to avoid heat-related illnesses.
Since swimmers are immersed in water when competing or training, it makes it difficult for medical staff to see sweat and determine if an athlete becomes ill or experiences symptoms of a heat-related illness.
"It's extremely important that safety boats are well-staffed and that there are multiple head counts of the swimmers done throughout a race," said Schultz.
During open-water races if an athlete faints or struggles due to a heat-illness and they go unnoticed by race and medical staff, the athlete will drown. It is this fact that makes the precautionary safety measures even more important in the sport of open-water swimming.
FINA, the sport's governing body, has set rules to monitor minimum temperatures and does not allow open-water races to occur if water temperatures are below approximately 61 degrees. Yet, there are to-date no rules set to ban open-water swimming if temperatures are too warm.
To aid in effective and safe open-water swimming, see the tips below from Schultz.
1. Before swimming in open water, check the water temperatures.
2. If swimming after a storm, check the water levels and watch out for floating debris.
3. Swim with a buddy.
4. Take water breaks, if you are going for a long swim.
5. Do combination training during hotter months, some in-water swimming and some on land training.
6. Swim early in the morning or later in the afternoon, not during peak hours.
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