The Ultimate Guide to Heat Safety for Student Athletes
- Aug 29, 2018
Heat illness is the leading cause of preventable death in high school athletics. Chances are, your athletic director already told you about heat guidelines at the beginning of the season or you’ve already taken a heat safety course. It’s always good to have critical heat safety information on hand just in case you need a refresher. That’s where our guide comes into play.
Who’s At Risk?
Most heat-related deaths happen during the first few days of practice. This normally is a result of doing too much, too fast, too soon. While all student athletes are at some sort of heat-related risk, those participating in high intensity outdoor sports during the summer months are at the greatest risk.
Football, for example, has received the most attention due to the number and severity of illnesses. According to the National Center of Catastrophic Sports Injury Research, 28 high school football players died of EHS between 2008 and 2017.
Heat Safety Fundamentals for Athletic Staff
The best ways to protect all student athletes from heat-related illnesses and EHS is to be prepared. Keep reading to go over the fundamentals of heat safety for student athletes so you can better protect the students at your school this season.
Start Slow & Use Heat Acclimatization
Physical exertion and training activities should begin slowly and increase progressively. Students cannot be “conditioned” in a period of only 2 to 3 weeks, which is a typical preseason length for fall sports. Here are a few tips to help you start your student athletes off slowly to help them get used to heat:
- Begin with shorter, less intense practices and training activities with longer recovery intervals between bouts of activity
- Incorporate conditioning into drills and instructional sessions in practices
- Don’t schedule conditioning activities at the end of practice
- Keep conditioning sport-specific
Remember, students aren’t just getting used the heat or the environment. They are also getting used to the intensity and duration of activity as well as the uniform/equipment. If you coach a sport that includes heavy equipment like football, field hockey, or lacrosse, it’s important to minimize protective gear worn during the first several weeks of practice. Then you can introduce additional uniform and protective gear, like football pads, goalie pads, and helmets, progressively. If you think about the spring season, this also applies to softball and baseball catchers.
Part of starting slowly is using heat acclimatization. This is the process of allowing the body to progressively adapt to exercising in the heat. Full heat acclimatization can take up to 10-14 days. Think about the first day of practice and ask yourself:
- Are any overweight?
- Did they train in the offseason?
- Did they train inside?
Chances are, you’ll answer yes to one or all of these questions. That means your students as a team are not prepared to deal with the stresses an demands intense exercise in hot and/or humid weather will place on their bodies.
That’s why you must build a period of heat acclimatization into the first 2 weeks of practices. If you want to get ahead ot the game, have your students start progressively exercising outside, in the heat, at least two weeks before practices begin. They should start with 15-20 minutes of intermittent exercise in the heat. Then they can add 5-10 minutes each day. We recommend telling students to exercise in pairs or groups and they should stop if they feel dehydrated.
Allow for Individual Conditioning
The next fundamental is to think of each student as an individual. Keep each student’s individual level of condition and medical status in mind because these factors affect exertional heat illness risk. We all know that students begin the preseason at varying levels of fitness and risk. Risk factors to be on the lookout for include:
- Poor fitness
- Recent illness
- Sickle cell trait
- Dietary supplement and energy drink use
- ADHD medication use
Once you access each student’s condition and medical status you can adjust activities accordingly to minimize risk for heat-related illnesses. It’s also especially important to pay extra attention to students who are new to your sport since they aren’t used to the physiological demands of the activity.
Adjust Intensity and Rest
The next fundamental is increasing rest and decreasing intensity during hotter, more humid days. This is a simple step that can help student athletes stay safe. When the weather changes drastically from the previous few days, follow these steps:
- Decrease intensity of activity
- Increase frequency/duration of rest breaks
- Reduce uniform/equipment
- Continue to closely monitor students during these changing conditions
Modifying practice is easier than it sounds. You can help your students by limiting pad and helmet usage. You can also schedule practice for early in the morning or later in the evening, when temperatures or heat indexes are lower. Another way you can modify practice to risk heat-related risks is to move practice indoors to an air-conditioned gym. Lastly, you can always focus on instruction and teaching rather than conditioning on very hot days.
All About Wet Bulb Globe Temperature
Preventing heat-related illnesses includes the proper preparation and adjust preventative measures based on Wet Bulb Globe Temperature (WBGT). WBGT is the most accurate “real feel” temperature at your practice facility. This is oftentimes very different from the forecast that you hear on the news in the morning. That forecast is normally from your nearest airport and is not an accurate description of how it feel at your school.
WBGT accounts for temperature, humidity, cloud cover, and more. You should take WBGT 15 minutes before practice to determine if you must modify or cancel practice. A school weather station will also tell you a more accurate Heat Index than the forecast on the news.
Focus on Hydration
The next fundamental is adequate hydration. While proper hydration does not necessarily decrease exertional heat illness it will decrease the risk. Students need to begin practices and other activities properly hydrated.
Dehydration occurs when a person loses more fluid than he or she drinks. When this miss-match occurs, it makes it harder for the body to function properly. This leads to fatigue and heat-related illnesses. There are many warning signs of dehydration. They include:
- Noticeable thirst
- Muscle Cramps
- Nausea and vomiting
- Heat sensations in the head or neck
- Decreased performance
Being properly hydrated is one of the easiest ways for students to ensure optimal performance and lower the risk of heat illness. Do not restrict access to water during practices. These restrictions are dangerous and decrease athlete performance. Make sure you let students know that when they are hydrated they will play better. Encourage them to carry a water bottle around during the day and tell them to hydrate on a schedule.
More On Hydration
Because students differ in body size, sweating rates, and training regiments, it’s difficult to recommend a one-size-fits-all hydration approach. There are two methods you can use to ensure students are well hydrated. Firstly, they can monitor their urine. If it is darker, like apple juice, they are dehydrated. The second method is weigh in/weigh out. 1 ½ – 2% loss can negatively affect athletic performance. Students should drink 16-20 ounces of fluid per pound lost within six hours after stopping activity to regain normal fluid levels.
Make sure fluids are readily available for all students before, during, and after activity. Water is the number one choice for hydration, however a properly formulated sports drink can provide much needed carbohydrates and electrolytes. The big drinks to stay away from are energy drinks or anything with caffeine. This is because they are not designed to re-hydrate students during activity.
Recognize Signs Early
As with any emergency, acting fast and appropriately can make all the different. If you notice a student with any of the following warning size, acting quickly can dramatically decrease the student athlete’s risk for serious heat-related illnesses. In fact, if you act quickly, students can often recover and resume to activity once the signs resolve. Be on the lookout for:
- Pale or bright red flushing of skin
- Deterioration of performance with signs of struggling
If you notice these signs, immediately remove the student from play and bring them to a shaded or air-conditioned area. If you have a cold water tub you can also use that. Remove excess clothing and equipment and then have the student lie comfortably. If your student athlete is not nauseated and is able to drink give them cold water or a sports drink. If they are unable to drink, please activate your emergency medical system.
Recognize More Serious Signs
The goal of any conditioning session is to challenge the student, so how do you differentiate between normally fatigue and serious heat-related problems? The first severe sign you should watch out for is severe fatigue, like when a student lays down and can’t get up. Other signs include stumbling, vomiting, collapse, and obvious behavioral changes. These changes include confusion, loss of consciousness, or seizures.
When you observe these signs you can prevent serious illness or death with rapid full body cooling and the activation of your emergency medical system. Pools or tubs of ice water should be prepared and available on site at all times of activity. If a tub is unavailable, cold wet towels and ice bags placed in the groin and armpits can help.
Know Your Emergency Action Plan
An emergency action plan needs to have written and practiced protocols. This should be developed and in place ahead of time, before your season starts. An emergency action plan makes it possible to respond to provide prompt, life-saving assistance.
Remember, this must be more than a binder on a shelf. This is something your school needs to understand and practice regularly. It could be the difference between life and death.
Heat Safety for Student Athletes is Critically Important
We know that when you think about your sports seasons, you think about the hard work your students put it, winning the big game, and teaching your athletes valuable life lessons. No coach, athletic director, or trainer wants to think about what can go wrong, but you have to. It’s one of the most important parts of your job.
Knowing these seven fundamentals and refreshing frequently can help you protect all the student athletes at your school from heat-related illnesses. Feel free to bookmark this guide so you can skim through it throughout your season to ensure you’re doing your part to protect your student athletes at every game, practice, and event.
If you would like to learn more about having weather data from your school more readily available with a school weather station, please contact us today to learn what options are available.
If you have any more general questions about heat safety and heat-related illnesses, please ask them in the comments section below.