Aug. 25, 2001
Note: Every Wednesday, I'll be writing a regular column about my experience as a Sun Devil Cross Country and Track runner. In each article, I'll attempt to bring you a first-hand account of what it's like to be a Sun Devil Student-Athlete and to run for one of the top programs in the country. In my last article, I shared with you more about the weight training regimen that we, as Sun Devil Cross Country runners follow. For this installment, I'll address the importance of the prevention and awareness of heatstroke.
The recent deaths of NFL veteran Korey Stringer and college football players Rashidi Wheeler and Eraste Autin have raised many questions about the intensity of college and professional athletic practices, as well as the need for the prevention and awareness of heatstroke. Perhaps the most upsetting reality about these players' deaths is that at least two of them probably could have been prevented. While it is easy to get carried away in training, to push yourself beyond your physical limits and to deny your body the replenishment and rest it needs, it is important to recognize the symptoms of heatstroke and heat-related illnesses.
According to the Gatorade Sports Science Institute, the "most severe stress and athlete can encounter is exercise in heat." This is true for all people, even the most-seasoned and well-trained athletes. At one time or another, everyone is at risk to suffer a heat-related illness. The key is to educate ourselves about these conditions and to take all necessary precautions to prevent such tragedies from occurring again.
First, it is important to understand the different stages of heat illnesses ranging from the mildest to the most severe cases. Sweating is the first sign, although this sign is relatively common during exercise. The body's way of cooling itself off, sweat releases the heat that elevates the body's internal temperature. In fact, "roughly 80% of the energy released during exercise is released as heat" (Deborah L Squire Sports Medicine). That's a whole lot of sweat! Problems arise when the outside temperature is higher than the skin's temperature. As a result, the body can absorb heat, causing the body's temperature to rise.
The next sign of heat illness is a loss of energy. This causes an overall decrease in performance due to excessive sweat loss. At this point, unless water or a sports drink is consumed to replenish these fluids, dizziness or light-headedness can occur. Feelings of nausea also follow this stage and are often early indicators of more serious forms of heat illnesses.
Heat cramps, the next stage, are severe muscle contractions that develop when an athlete is dehydrated. They usually affect the limbs and abdomen and stem from inadequate circulation of the exercising muscles. The final less-threatening stage of heat illnesses is headaches. Headaches are the result of reduced blood and oxygen flow to the brain. It is important to note that headaches and the symptoms that precede them are easily curable and avoidable with proper hydration and rest. However, the following, more serious heat illnesses are causes for major concern and require immediate medical attention.
Heat exhaustion occurs when the body attempts to conserve its energy and fluids. In doing so, it reduces the blood flow to the skin and causes skin to become cold and pale. Athletes who suffer from heat exhaustion have no signs of fever and instead suffer from a drop in overall body temperature. Other symptoms include dizziness, fainting, and weakness. Heat exhaustion is a sign of trouble and if not treated can progress to the most serious case of heat illness- heatstroke.
Heatstroke is a deadly condition and was the cause of death for Korey Stringer and Eraste Autin. An athlete suffering from heatstroke will have hot, flushed skin and a high fever (of at least 105 degrees). At this stage sweating will cease, because the thermo-regulatory system that produces sweat shuts down. Finally, an athlete may become unconscious and go into shock, leading to death if the body's temperature is not regulated.
So now that you know about the many forms and progressions of heat illnesses, let's address how to avoid experiencing them. The most obvious and best form of prevention is to stay hydrated. Sometimes, it's easy to forget the importance that water and other fluids have on the body's ability to function. Water is like the body's lifeline- without it, you're dead! As Deborah L. Squire of the Sports Medicine Book states, "the single most important risk factor for heat illness is fluid loss leading to dehydration."
To monitor your body's intake and loss of water, it's crucial to weigh yourself before and after runs or any other form of intense physical activity. A loss of more than 2-3 pounds of water is a sign of trouble and means for concern. Besides watching your daily intake and output of water, it is important to evaluate your workout regimen and schedule.
Obviously, a runner should avoid running in the heat of the day. Although this may mean getting up early to run or waiting to run until nighttime, the benefits are plenty. By doing so, your body conserves energy and recovers quicker. Your workout will also leave you feeling energized rather than exhausted. However, at some time or another, every athlete faces adverse climate conditions or unexpected weather.
In such situations, acclimatization is vital to ensuring proper adjustment. The more you acclimatize yourself to different climates, the better your body will respond to intense heat. Generally, the body takes one to two weeks to fully adapt. During this time it's crucial to also moderate your workouts in intensity and duration to get used to the change in climate. Of course, don't forget to drink plenty of water, since "heat acclimatization will actually increase the requirement for fluid replacement because of enhanced sweating response" (Gatorade Sports Institute).
Heatstroke and the effects of other heat illnesses are serious matters that require special attention and prevention. There is no reason to put yourself at unnecessary risk. By properly hydrating yourself and listening to your body, you can help to detect some of the warning signs before they escalate into serious health issues. While it is too late to bring back the lives of Korey Stringer, Eraste Autin, and Rashidi Wheeler, by recognizing the importance of these heat symptoms you can help to avoid and prevent future heat tragedies.
A little bit about me:
In the fall, I'll begin my sophomore year academically and my freshman year athletically (You may ask how I'm in two years at one time. Well, this past year I was red-shirted in order to preserve four years of my eligibility. Basically, this means that I ran in a limited number of events and did not represent ASU in competition). My primary event during track was the 1500m. I have lived in Tempe now for the past nine years and am a graduate of Corona del Sol High School. At ASU, I am majoring in broadcast journalism, with plans to become a news anchor or sports reporter in the future.
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