5 Tips to Avoid Exertional Heat Illness

15 06 2010

It seems that every summer the media reports the same tragedy: another athlete has died due to the effects of exertional heat illness.  Coaches and athletes need to take precautions when training in the heat.  The following are simple steps to train smartly during the heat.

  1. Allow time to acclimate to the heat. Even top athletes are at risk if they are unaccustomed to the heat.  It can take the body 1-2 weeks to acclimatize to the heat.  Therefore, intensity and duration of workouts need to be reduced at the beginning and gradually increase over the first 14 days of the summer training program.
  2. Keep Hydrated:  Drink early and often. Staying hydrated allows the body’s cooling response to work effectively.  As the body loses water, if not replaced, it becomes more difficult to maintain a safe core temperature.  Sports drinks (i.e. Gatorade) should be encouraged because they will rehydrate better than water alone.  For strategies to maintain proper hydration, see my previous post on Inadequate fluid intake.
  3. Wear Appropriate Clothing. Wearing the wrong workout attire can make it more difficult for the body to dissipate heat.  Dark clothing absorbs heat.  So make sure to wear lightweight and light colored clothing.
  4. Monitor Weather Conditions. You should always check the weather forecast the morning of a workout day.  If the heat and humidity is predicted to be too high that day, if possible, change your workout to the morning or late evening when it is cooler.  Otherwise, shorten the duration of the workout or decrease the intensity that day.  Also, allow for longer and more frequent hydration breaks.
  5. Be Aware of how some Medications and Supplements affect the body’s ability to cool. One of the more common medication categories that can be dangerous when combined with exercise in the heat is ADHD medications.  If you are on one of these medications or as a coach you have an athlete taking this category, you need to pay extra attention to the warning signs of dehydration.  Some of the signs/symptoms are headache, dizziness, excessive fatigue, nausea, vomiting, and chills.  When the symptoms progress beyond thirst and/or fatigue, the safest strategy is to cool the athlete quickly and allow for rehydration.  As far as supplements go, the worst are stimulant-containing products, such as energy drinks, weight loss products, and others that promote giving you that “pump” like NO-Xplode.

© Randy Bird, MS, RD, CSSD, CSCS and Randy Bird Sports Nutrition, 2010.

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