Record Heat, Humidity Create New Risks for Elite Athletes
Athletes around the world whose sports demand extreme exertion at whatever temperatures nature has on hand are increasingly guarding against the dangerous physiological stresses that heat and humidity bring.
Whether its long distance foot races like Nevada’s Running with the Devil, where participants cover up to 100 kilometres, the World Cup, the Australian Open, or the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, athletes and their coaches are beginning to recognize that competition in a climate-changed world carries mortal risks, reports the Washington Post.
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“Heat stroke generally strikes when the body temperature reaches 104°F,” the Post states. “When the body can no longer cool itself, blood stops reaching vital organs and the brain, heart, kidneys, lungs, liver, and muscles can begin to malfunction. The symptoms can vary, but with the central nervous system compromised, athletes can experience dizziness, fatigue, headaches, seizures, and nausea. They could pass out and lose consciousness altogether.”
Determined to keep athletes doing what they love (and the economic engine of elite sports ticking over), “a crowd of more than 6,000 gathered in late spring for the annual meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), the largest such gathering in the world,” the Post notes.
Inside an air conditioned convention centre (30°F cooler than outside), heat stress was on the agenda for 200 athletic trainers, doctors, researchers, physiologists, and performance coaches who had gathered for a presentation on preparations for the upcoming Tokyo Olympics. Doug Casa, head of the Korey Stringer Institute in Connecticut, said the games will be “the hottest Summer Olympics in history,” where “the most brutal conditions that you can imagine” will begin with average temperatures close to 32°C/90°F.
The American College of Sports Medicine, “recommends halting any training and practice activities at 90°F,” observes the Post.
In such conditions, the paper says acclimatization will be the key to competing and surviving. Arriving at least a week before competition begins and training in the heat will help athletes’ bodies: “plasma volume increases, heart rate decreases, sweat rate increases, and skin and core temperatures stabilize.”
Confident that Team USA will thrive whatever the weather, Randy Wilber, chief physiologist for the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee, told conference attendees he planned to turn the challenge into a competitive advantage. “If we do this right—if we prepare for the heat and humidity right—we could beat some people who would normally blow us up,” he said.
That will mean “out-sciencing” the opposition, he added, with the turn to tech including the use of specially-engineered ice vests that U.S. athletes will wear before and after their events.
Casa also heralded two “holy grail” pieces of technology that may be market-ready within the next few years: “a wearable assessment that measures an athlete’s hydration status and another that offers real-time monitoring of core body temperature.”
Shifting start times to cooler periods of the day (or night) is also an option. In blisteringly hot Qatar, for example, organizers of this year’s track and field world championships in late September plan to start the marathon at midnight. The Olympic marathon in Tokyo next year will begin at 6:00 AM.
All of this cautionary activity is taking place as the world continues to warm at a terrifying pace.
Fifty kilometres away from the athletes in Running with the Devil, Las Vegas “is the fastest-warming city in the country and has seen an average temperature increase of nearly 6.0°F since 1970,” the Post writes. And “the whole planet is getting warmer,” with climate scientists already predicting that July 2019 will be the hottest month on record since record-keeping began in 1880.
A 2013 study by a team at the University of Georgia forecast a “considerable increase” in “dangerously hot” days right across the country, with southeastern and Gulf Coast states as well as Arizona averaging “30 to 50 days of oppressive heat in some areas—and as many as 85 such days in some spots,” the Post reports. Traditionally cooler regions of the U.S., like New England or the Pacific Northwest, “which currently have fewer than five oppressive days annually, could see 15 to 30 per year.”Already, high temperature records have been tumbling in Alaska, with the heat producing wildfires and health alerts across the state and beyond.