Athletes can handle the heat, doctor says
The perception is that 40-plus-degrees heat is too much for elite sports stars - but they should be equipped to handle it, one of Australia's leading sports physiologists says.
While there is a risk of succumbing to extreme heat, professional sportspeople are typically better equipped to cope with the danger of warm conditions than most realise.
That is the opinion of Australian Institute of Sport physiologist David T. Martin, who says most elite athletes who compete in summer sports are familiar with the heat and spend time preparing for weather such as that NSW experienced on Tuesday.
''For many different types of athletes, competing in hot conditions can have serious impact, and complaints need to be taken seriously ...'' he told Fairfax Media.
Martin said the perfect storm occurred when a highly motivated athlete unfamiliar with warm conditions pushed themselves to the maximum in warm, humid conditions.
In some cases, the consequences can be lethal. In the United States, more than 33 athletes have died of heatstroke since 1995.
The heat of Sydney was too much for Agnieszka Radwanska, the Polish world No.4, on Tuesday when she said it was ''too hot to play'' at the Sydney International after toughing out a straight-sets win over Kimiko Date-Krumm as temperatures rose into the mid-40s. ''Even for players, for ball kids, for the people sitting out there, I think it's just too hot,'' she said. ''I think I would prefer to go on court at 11pm and play a match.''
Not that the heat stopped play at Homebush, or other sport on Tuesday. As the tournament continued, cyclists were preparing to race at 6pm in the Subaru-Focus pointscore criterium series at Heffron Park, Maroubra, where temperatures reached 41C at 1.15pm. At Wagga Wagga, a thoroughbred meeting was brought forward two hours.
Martin, who has studied heat stress on athletes for 20 years, said the ability of elite athletes to adapt to extreme conditions set them apart from those who did not regularly compete in sport.
''Professional athletes will quickly learn to adopt conservative pacing strategies in warm conditions,'' he said. ''Their familiarity with exercising in warm conditions helps them handle quite extraordinarily challenging thermal loads without becoming as compromised as un-acclimated person.
''It is not that the heat won't have an effect. But their margin for error is greater and they seem to be functional right even when they are close to collapsing, which can be good for performance but can also be risky as many operate right on the edge of becoming too hot.
''The headlines are usually exciting - 'Exercising in Hot Conditions Can
Kill' or 'Athletes' Lives at Risk' - and that usually grabs everyone's attention. And although that is true, it is still very rare that acclimatised athletes familiar with exercising in hot conditions that take the appropriate precautions run into major drama even when conditions are extreme.''
Martin said some athletes adapted so well to extreme heat they could use it to their advantage.
''Athletes that are fully adapted can be very shrewd and will sometimes modify their game plan when playing in really hot conditions in an attempt to inflict maximal damage on their lesser-acclimated opponents,'' he said. ''And they can do a remarkably good job of re-pacing and re-examining their strategy so that they survive, but their competitors don't. This will let let their opponent really suffer in the heat stress.''
When things became particularly bad, the athlete's body also had a natural way of minimising the worst-case result of heat stress: fainting or becoming unconscious.
''For most athletes they begin to feel so bad they stop exercising. The sensations to stop exercise help the body to take care of itself.
''When it really gets to be too much you pass out or you go unconscious ... This is the body's last-ditch effort to take care of itself. Unfortunately in some extreme conditions, by the time the athlete goes unconscious it can be too late.''
1. Heat stress and cramps
Symptoms of heat cramps usually include excess sweating, fatigue, thirst and cramps in the stomach, arms or legs with moderate to heavy physical activity. You can usually treat heat cramps by drinking water or fluids containing electrolytes (sports drinks), resting and finding a cool spot.
2. Heat exhaustion
Failure to act on heat cramps leads to heat exhaustion - headaches, dizziness or light headedness, nausea, skin that feels cool and moist, and muscle cramps. Drinking cool, non-alcoholic beverages, getting into a cool area or taking a shower can alleviate this.
Heatstroke while exercising is caused by an increase in body temperature in hot weather. The main sign of heatstroke is when the body temperature reaches 40C. Other symptoms include a lack of sweating, red skin, headaches, cramps, nausea, vomiting, rapid breathing, racing heart, general confusion and hallucination.
4. Serious injury or death
A possible complication of heatstroke is shock caused by a sudden loss of blood flow. Signs of shock include very low blood pressure, blue lips and nails, and cool, clammy skin. Failure to act quickly could lead to death or damage to the brain or other vital organs.
Sydney Morning Herald