Heat Safety: Help keep athletes safe and performing well

With temperatures on the rise and many athletes taking to the fields, heat safety is of upmost importance. Each year more than 600 people are killed in the United States by heat-related illnesses, some of which are athletes suffering from heat stroke or exhaustion.

The main concern with heat is that it pushes the human body beyond its limits. When extreme heat combines with high humidity, it becomes a potentially lethal situation if caution is not exercised. This is particularly true during the first three weeks of August.

Athletes succumb to heat-related illnesses because evaporation is slowed down and the body having to work harder to maintain a normal temperature.  Because of the potentially fatal consequences of exposure to severe heat, coaches and officials need to carefully monitor weather conditions. But how do you measure heat?

Heat is generally measured in two ways: a heat index or a Wet Bulb Globe Temperature (WBGT). The heat index, or ‘feels like factor’ is calculated using just air temperature and relative humidity, and is measured in the shade. However, the WBGT is much more comprehensive and incorporates measurements in temperature, relative humidity, wind, cloud cover and sun angle.

By having access to reliable readings for the WBGT coaches and officials can be proactive in keeping athletes safe during practices and games. This information can also act as a guide for activity and rest breaks during physical activities. For example, a WBGT under 82.0 degrees means that normal activities and practices can be observed such as three separate rest breaks each hour for a minimum of three minutes each. However, once you get above 82.0 degrees more caution needs to be exercised.

There are some important things to consider when any practice or game is occurring during months where the temperatures are warmer. For one, the best practice times generally fall between 6-9 a.m. and 6-9 p.m., and these practices should generally last less than three hours. In regards to activities during practices, start slow and allow athletes to build up to full equipment and intensity.  It is critical to allow their bodies to gradually adjust to the conditions outside and build endurance. As always, players need to remain well hydrated and take occasional breaks per a personalized heat safety plan.

This plan needs to have guidelines specific to your region, time of year and athlete acclimatization. You also need to consider the level and duration of workouts and how that can be impacted by the WBGT. Lastly, access to an accurate WBGT reading is also crucial for coaches and officials to make decisions regarding athlete safety.