Heat is a thief. It steals and kills.
In 2001, during the Minnesota Vikings training camp in the summer heat, offensive lineman Korey Stringer died from heat stroke. After his death, his wife worked to develop a heat stroke prevention institute to honor her husband’s legacy. The Korey Stringer Institute was founded about a decade later and now partners with the National Football League (NFL), Gatorade, the National Athletic Trainers’ Association (NATA), and other companies to, according to their website, "provide research, education, advocacy and consultation to maximize performance, optimize safety and prevent sudden death for the athlete, warfighter and laborer."
Since then, coaches and parents have learned more, thanks to increasing resources, but every summer it's worth repeating just in case it saves even one life during this hot weather. I still see the occasional story about a heat-related death in the world of sports. Even if there is an underlying condition, the heat can complicate and trigger the worst.
At the very least, the heat will dehydrate you and steal your energy. At worst, one of three degrees of heat-related illnesses can occur:
Heat stroke, the worst of the three, is when a person’s body can no longer thermoregulate their core body temperature. A couple things happen:
•the body's temperature rises rapidly
•the sweating mechanism fails
•the body is unable to cool down
According to the National Center for Catastrophic Injury Research, the US has averaged 2.2 sports-related deaths by external heatstroke per year since 2012. This is actually down from 4.5 from the prior decade thanks to coaches and parents like you educating yourself and taking action. This leads to the good news: heat stroke is preventable.
Heat is nothing to mess around with, so make sure to take these precautions seriously. With a little planning and care, you can stay safe and healthy. But does this apply to everybody?
Summer heat is, of course, relative to the part of the country you live in, but since there is a huge football population in the southern states – from the Big 12, SEC, ACC, and many other football conferences – heat is an issue. As you can imagine, studies show football players are at greater risk of heat stroke.
Not many schools below D1 have an indoor training facility to take the edge off the heat, and you certainly won’t see a collegiate team travel to cooler weather for training camp like pro teams like the Dallas Cowboys do in Oxnard, California. However, the aforementioned Korey Stringer’s case occurred in Minnesota. Even northern regions can experience heat waves.
I am going to give some observations and suggestions about how to safely navigate the summer workouts.
Heat is a thief. I have now said that twice but what does it mean? It means that as much as you try to acclimate, it will always win in the end. Even if you are physically prepared, it can take a mental toll.
Nobody is immune. Hot days are robbing you of fluid, energy, and performance.
It’s hot for everyone, but who is the smartest about it? I’m asking about sports across the board, but you football players are wearing 10-15 pounds of gear on your body and head. You can wear wicking material underneath, but is it enough?
Then you have a heat index.
A temperature in the 90s can be a heat index in the 100s. Humid weather is a big cause of this. This is why the south sees so many cases. So while you can incrementally increase exposure to the heat over the course of two weeks, one day can see a heat index raise it to dangerous highs above what you’ve been attempting to acclimate to.
Individual fitness level matters, too.
Studies show that kids with higher BMIs are more susceptible. Youth athletes who are overweight will have different heart rates after an easy run let alone hard summer running. This affects their blood flow and other physiological responses to the heat.
Acclimation isn’t a result of exposure alone. It must be combined with improved fitness and other tips. It also doesn’t mean to relax the precautions and safety measures. Allow me to get into four tips I believe are important to keep in mind.
Scheduling is huge.
“Touch” the heat, as I like to say. It means to feel the weather before immersing your team into it. More specifically, this means that rather than going out at 3:30 p.m. every afternoon, choose to go out at 2 p.m., three times a week for only an hour tops. Keep this “touch” in mind for early morning practices, too.
Some of you may have noticed the morning phenomenon when the weather gets almost as hot at 10:30 a.m. as it does at 3:30 p.m. in the heat of the day. Workouts must be scheduled around the coolest times of the day to keep your players protected from high temperatures. The earlier the better, especially for hard workouts.
Because of the heat, walking outside and onto the field can be as much of a warm-up as doing a full warm-up in the winter.
I do my warm-ups differently in January than in July, for example. The warm-ups in the summer months should be shorter and to the point, because when you start sweating, your body is showing that it is warm, clearly. Get a good stretch and go.
As proof, for many summers at my indoor training facility, we only went outside once a week. That was for the Saturday long speed. Many of those athletes had soccer, baseball, tennis or 7-on-7 practices, so we had to protect their health and support their practice in the best way we could. Their athletic development was done in a controlled environment for maximum gains. Because of this preventative measure, everybody was ready for training camp and crushed their conditioning test.
Notice I didn’t just say drink lots of water. The loss of sodium through sweat is the most important adjustment that must be made.
Anybody in the heat for hours on end should be continuously drinking water AND electrolytes morning, noon, and night. I’ve spoken before on nutrition in relation to drinking. Just be wise in your selection of sports drinks.
Don’t wait until you are thirsty to drink. That's when dangerous heat exhaustion happens. If you stop sweating, take action immediately.
This has been hard for some to understand. If you are out in the sun, but not working out, it is still important to wear a hat and long sleeves. Not just because of sunburn, though yes wear sunscreen if you are not wearing sleeves. If you are a player, try training in long sleeves.
Moisture-wicking, of course. Sportswear “technology” has come a long way from 200% cotton.
If it doesn’t work for you, don’t wear it. But do try.
As a coach, for years I wore long sleeves during workouts and practices. Guys would ask, “aren’t you hot?” My answer was always the same, “not any hotter than you.” Even if you follow each of these steps, you still could get sunburned. Sunburn has loads of disadvantages, including making you tired later. Leave the Aloe Vera behind and cover-up.
Remember: Shade is the enemy of the heat. Train aggressively, yet intelligently.