Don't let the heat stop you: how to exercise even in extreme conditions

It was a radiant sun, it was 1:00 p.m. and I was ready to play tennis; everything was going well until, 45 minutes later, the ice pack on his neck and a wheelchair helped him not pass out from heat stroke. This situation is the one experienced by Paula Badosa at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, where half a dozen tennis players suffered the effect of heat and humidity on the body; they ceased activity and left the tournament.

It is undeniable that the heat is suffocating, especially for those of us who love to exercise with a certain intensity. Does this mean that we have to stop training? The answer is no. Locate anywhere in Spain where temperatures will be high in the coming days; yes, very high for exercise. That’s when exercising at a certain intensity complicates everything. Your body, as the perfect machine that it is, will have to start all the mechanisms at its disposal to maintain your body temperature within normal range (35.7 to 37.3°C); but, in situations of extreme heat and if the exercise is of high intensity, your body may collapse due to heat and we will have some other problem. In these circumstances, all necessary precautions should be taken. And no, the solution is not to stop training. The solution is to train with your head and adapt to the environmental conditions. The severity of environmental conditions for our body is mainly a function of temperature, relative humidity and air speed. You will have to be more alert in those situations with high temperature and humidity and with little wind.

The most important thing is to make a good acclimatization to the heat that happens relatively quickly. Although it is a highly individualized process that depends on various factors (duration, frequency, number of exposures, environmental conditions, among others), it is considered that a period of 5 days is sufficient to achieve the necessary adaptations and associated benefits. So, during the first days of suffocating summer heat, acclimatize and progressively increase the intensity and duration of the exercise.

We must bear in mind that the intensity of exercise is the variable that most influences the increase in internal body temperature. When heat production due to physical exercise exceeds the body’s ability to dissipate heat, body temperature will increase, and may reach dangerous levels due to hyperthermia (high body temperature). A high-intensity exercise that produces 1000kcal/h can raise body temperature to dangerous levels in high-risk athletes (untrained, overweight and unacclimatized) in less than 30 minutes. Hence the need to adapt the intensity, and also the duration, of the exercise to the environmental conditions; To protect ourselves, we must lower the intensity of effort the greater the thermal stress due to heat.

Excessive sweating in summer and/or inadequate fluid intake, in addition to other factors, can lead to a state of dehydration that compromises the response to exercise. If you are wondering how to tell if you are well hydrated or not, you can easily tell by the color of your first morning urine which should be no higher than 4 to be considered hydrated on a urine color scale. A dehydration of only 2% of body weight when the ambient temperature exceeds 30°C can negatively affect sports performance and compromise thermoregulatory processes. In a high intensity exercise and in a hot environment we can sweat up to 2L/h. Faced with this compromised situation, the importance of properly hydrating is fundamental and you should not overlook it.

Now that you know a way to approach your hydration status, I have to tell you that it is important that you start the exercise properly hydrated; never dehydrated. It is the basic pillar from which to build a good hydration strategy. The general recommendation to take care of our health and optimize performance is to limit body water loss due to sweat to 2% or less, but also no weight gain from fluid intake. We are talking at all times about the difference in body weight before and after training. It is also interesting to include enough sodium in the rehydration drink to prevent or solve possible imbalances due to loss of sweat and elimination of urine. In addition, under these hot conditions, it will always be better to drink liquids with some flavor, since they are more pleasant to the palate and that are fresh to facilitate intake and that it is not as “boring” as drinking only water. But be careful, of course, without alcohol content.

Currently, there is a scientific debate on the subject at hand and it refers to the hydration strategy. Two options are proposed: the hydration strategy ad libitum (drink to pleasure) and the planned strategy. It is suggested that high-intensity workouts with high sweat rates that go beyond 90 minutes in hot environments should be accompanied by a planned strategy, while drinking freely (when you feel like it and are thirsty) may be enough to compensate. fluid loss in low-intensity exercise, of shorter duration (<90 minutes), and in cooler environments. Although in the personal reality of each one and the sport activity that they carry out, the choice of one or another hydration strategy will depend on the load of the exercise (intensity and duration), environmental conditions, availability and access to liquids and also on their level of physical capacity and state of acclimatization.

Before going out to do physical exercise when the heat is intense, we must think carefully about the clothing that we are going to use, since it acts as a barrier between the skin and the environment, thus altering the properties of heat exchange in relation to environmental conditions. Garments with insulating properties or that prevent the evaporation of sweat should be avoided. We should also avoid clothing that absorbs sweat, such as cotton shirts, since the sweat that soaks into the shirt does not evaporate on the skin and does not cool. In the case of being exposed to solar radiation, direct exposure to sunlight, it is important to choose light colors, but it is even more important to choose garments with reflective properties of the dyes used; we refer to clothing with ultraviolet sun protection.

You should also plan the best time of day when you leave home to exercise outdoors. The best hours are early in the morning; so we’ll have to get up early, sorry. Between 6 and 8 in the morning are the hours with the lowest temperatures (although they are still high), since that is when the earth has lost the most heat throughout the night. And of course, avoid the central hours of the day with higher temperature and solar radiation.

In these circumstances, a good adviser will be common sense taking into account the above recommendations. The solution is not to stop training during the hot season, but to take all possible precautions to train safely. If your training regimen is demanding, consult a professional who adapts the training conditions to the weather so that your physical capacity is affected as little as possible.

Now all that remains is to enjoy the summer and also the training. Don’t let the heat stop us!

Nuria Garatachea She is a tenured professor at the University of Zaragoza in the Faculty of Health and Sports Sciences. She is a researcher of the GENUD group.

FIND OUT It is the space of EL PAÍS SALUD where we will talk about those aspects related to physical activity, sports and physical and mental health. Physical activity and sport are part of the culture of all civilizations and play a fundamental role in the health of society at all levels, both physical and mental, at all ages, from childhood to old age, both in men as in women. The Physical Activity and Sports Sciences have tried to advance scientific knowledge about the importance of movement and physical exercise on the body, as well as the processes that explain why certain adaptations, modifications or changes to different levels (physiological, anatomical, motor, emotional or cognitive). For all these reasons, this space seeks to find the scientific explanations that support and justify the very beneficial reasons for physical activity and sport. Likewise, it will try to discuss and refute certain myths or false beliefs existing in society on specific issues of physical exercise and health.

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