Outsmarting Heat Illness

With the recent heat wave that has gripped the country, many of us are struggling to tolerate the brutal heat and humidity.  It’s one thing if you decide to run in the hot summer heat but with this kind of heat, simply walking the dog or working in the yard is putting anyone at risk for health problems.

Help is here!  I’m a modest guy but I can say when it comes to heat illness prevention, I know it well.

Working with the Jacksonville Jaguars in the Sunshine State is a great start.  Athletically, I’ve competed in the three hottest Ironman Triathlons in the world.  Those three 140 mile races are in Brazil, Hawaii and Lanzarote and I finished each of them with my personal best times at that time.  Interestingly, the Lanzarote Ironman in the Canary Islands is labelled as the “toughest Ironman triathlon in the world” for over 15 years and no other race has challenged them for that title!

It’s safe to say that I know heat and how to safely exercise in a hot environment.

Heat illness is a dangerous problem but it’s important to note that heat illness is a very preventable problem.  If an athlete is smart in his/her approach to exercising in a hot environment, most problems can be completely avoided.  Educating athletes and others involved with their activities is the key first step to avoiding problems and even death related to heat stroke.

Common Results of Heat-Related Illnesses

Heat Cramps – Persistent involuntary muscle contractions and pain that continue during and after exercise.

Heat Exhaustion –  Symptoms can include dizziness, nausea, fainting, muscle cramps, headache and poor of coordination.  This is a moderate level of heat illness which can progress to a life threatening condition if left untreated.  This is usually a results of an elevated body core temperature and a loss of fluid or sodium.

Exertional Heat Stroke – Symptoms may include nausea, vomiting, headache, seizures, confusion, and potentially a loss of consciousness.  This is a life threatening condition that can progress rapidly if the body core temperature reached 104F.  Immediate medical care is needed if heat stroke is suspected.

 Mike Ryan’s Tips to Beat the Heat

  • Know Your Enemy – Know the warning signs of heat illness: dizziness, nausea, confusion, a sudden urge to cheer for the NY Yankees, headache and/or fainting.
  • The 50/50 Rule – The rule of hydration I use is what my Jaguars players call the “Ryan 50/50 Rule”.  Consume 50% water & 50% sports drink before, during and after the workout/race.
  • Take the Time – Your body needs time to acclimate to the heat.  Your body is adjusting with hundreds of bodily changes and that takes time to properly prepare.  Gradually increases both the duration and the intensity of physical activity. This process typically takes 10 to 14 days.
  • Know Your Carbs – When it comes to helping to keep the body core cool, simple carbs (sweets, soda, cakes,…etc.) are BAD while complex carbs (pasta, grains, sports drinks,…etc.) are GOOD.  Asking your body to cool itself in a hot environment is not the place to be trying a new diet or limiting your caloric intake.
  • Sleep is Key – Sleep deprivation limits the body’s ability to dissipate heat.  Get your sleep & you’ll tolerate the heat much better on race day.
  • Small Chunks – Take breaks and rest period when exercising in a hot environment.
  • Other Factors Contributing to Heat Illness – Knowing what factors predispose you to having problems in the heat is extremely important.  These include fever, stimulants including caffeine, prolonged air flight due an average humidity level in an airplane of only 5%, menstruation, cold medicine, diuretics, recent heat illness, dehydration and recent weight loss.
  • Open the Salt Mine– You need salt (sodium) and you need it early.  Start consuming salty snacks like pretzels and tortilla chips 24 hours before the start of the race.  Continue with the salty snacks up to and during the longer bouts of exercise and exposure to the heat.
  • Cool the Core – If you can keep your body core (the torso and abdomen area that contains your kinda important organs) cool, your body will tolerate the heat better and enhance your performance.  It’s that simple.
  • Adjust Your Pre-Race Routine – Minimize your exposure to the excessive heat and humidity just prior to your workout or race.  Two tips are to move some of your pre-race warming up into an air-conditioned area or shorten your pre-race routine when exposed to the heat and direct sunshine.
  • Look Cool – A valuable lesson that I learned during a brutal race in Ironman Brazil….Wear light colored clothing and hat because they absorb less heat and keep your body cooler.
  • Keep a Cool Head – Ice and cool water in your hat is a great way to get an upper hand during the Dog Days of Summer.
  • Burn is Bad – Sunburned skin is very inefficient in protecting you in the heat.  If you’re sporting that red lobster sunburn look, know that you body will not be at it’s best to handle the heat even if that sunburnt skin is not exposed.

Cool Closing

Taking care of yourself before you exercise in the heat is a smart start.  If you’re sick, taking stimulants or experiencing any of the previously noted conditions, you need to hyper-hydrate early and often and limit your time in the heat.

Most individuals from the professional athletes to the weekend warriors who have problems in the heat can trace the main reason for their problems back to a relatively simple cause.  Common sense is often missing.

Plan ahead, closely monitor how you feel, eat right, drink with the “Ryan 50/50 Rule”, limit your exposure with frequent breaks and you’ll be fine.

Remember, heat illness is very preventable with a few smart steps.  It’s time to get out and enjoy getting healthy!

Author: Mike Ryan

After 26 seasons as a full-time certified athletic trainer and registered physical therapist in the National Football League, Mike Ryan has outstanding first-hand experience. His unique professional and athletic background has sharpened his skills in the arts of sports injury management, elite rehabilitation, performance enhancement and injury prevention. Mike is now taking his experience to mainstream America. His mission is simple: Sports Medicine advice that is easy to use and brings fast results. Learn more about Mike Ryan

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