Channeling your inner athlete in the Queensland heat and humidity

Everyone who tuned in to the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games would’ve heard the commentators talk about the high heat and humidity in Japan in summer, and the impact this could have on an athlete’s performance. We cheered on from our lounge rooms as the cyclists, marathon runners, hockey players, and tennis stars made these conditions look like a minor inconvenience. Living in Queensland and facing a similar climate, the weather is definitely something we need to consider when participating in races or events of our own.

Exercising in warm conditions can put stress on our body’s systems by increasing our internal temperature. One way our body deals with this is to cool us down with sweat. Depending on how hard we’re exercising, this can be at a rate of 0.8-1.4L of sweat per hour! When we’re exercising, water (and small amounts of other chemicals like urea, salt, and sugar) moves from our body’s cells, into our sweat glands and on to our skin. This means the total amount of fluid sitting within our body decreases which, when not replaced, can lead to dehydration.

When dehydrated, our minds and bodies cannot function at their best. We often feel more fatigued than usual or start to have trouble concentrating or making decisions (the fuzzy head feeling). Our body’s systems can also slow down and our physical performance in sport may not be as good as it could be. Higher levels of humidity, like the 65-70% we see in Queensland summer’s, are an added barrier as the higher levels of water in the air make it hard for sweat to evaporate from our skin to cool us down.

Whilst this doesn’t sound appealing, it doesn’t mean we need to miss out on physical activity events in the summer months. With the right precautions and preparations, you can still get outdoors, enjoy the benefits that exercise has to offer, and maybe even beat your PB!

Just like the Olympic Team Coaches spent time preparing their athletes to perform in a heat situation, we’ve got some tips that will get you well on the way to staying cool before, during, and after exercise.

Before

  • Plan for the event – Do your background checks to understand how you might be able to access water during your event. If you know that there’s a water station halfway through the course, practice stopping for a drink at this time during training. If you know you’ll need to carry your own bottle on the day, carry one during your practice runs so that you know what to expect.

During

  • Stay hydrated – Hydration doesn’t end when you cross the starting line, you will need to keep it up throughout. As water moves from our cells to our skin (to create sweat), it leaves behind a high concentration of electrolytes within the cell (salt, potassium, chloride and other minerals). This causes the cells themselves to shrink, triggering a response in our brains to replace the lost fluid – we receive this message by feeling the sensation of thirst. The problem is our internal thirst mechanisms lag behind our actual levels of hydration so by the time you feel thirsty, the cells have already started to shrink and you are probably already dehydrated! Aim not to feel the sensation of thirst throughout the event. Whether you have planned out your fluid intake, or you will just sip on your bottle along the way, keeping hydrated will help you keep the amount of fluid in our cells level and keep you feeling fit throughout the event.

    Research shows that cold or iced beverages can lead to reduced exhaustion or performance benefits for some athletes. Try freezing some water in the bottom of your bottle ahead of time, for a refreshing drink along the course.
  • Keep cool – Consider other ways to keep your temperature down. Wear lightweight, light coloured clothing that reflects the heat and helps your body to maintain its normal temperature. Wear a wide brimmed hat (if possible) and apply sunscreen to avoid the effects of the sun. If possible, stick to shady parts of the event course and consider splashing water on your face and head during the event, when you stop for a drink.
  • Pace yourself – It can be tempting during a competition to push yourself to get the best result. However, when exercising in the heat it’s important to pace yourself and run at the speed you’ve trained for. This will give your body the best chance to adapt to the climate and function at its best for the duration of the event. The number one rule is to listen to your body – if you start to feel lightheaded, nauseous, or have painful muscle cramps; slow down, increase the fluid, and find some shade if you can. It may feel like you’re setting yourself further back from your PB, but heat exhaustion will put you out of the game for much longer.

After

  • Refuel your body – Once you cross the finish line, it’s important to continue to drink up. Not only will you need to replace the fluid lost during your race, but you’ll continue to lose fluid through sweating and urination for some time after you have finished your session. To adequately rehydrate, aim to drink one and a half times the fluid you may have lost while exercising (remember the average rate of 0.8-1.4L of sweat per hour).

    Remember fruit and vegetables contain a high proportion of water (that’s right, you can literally eat water), so a fruit snack such as oranges or watermelon can also help your fluid replacement. Also be mindful of caffeine and alcohol during this time, as they can have a diuretic effect (makes our body produce more urine) which will lead to further loss of body fluid and dehydration.

    In some cases it can also be important to consider replacing the electrolytes (salt, sugar, potassium, chloride) that may have been metabolised and lost through sweat during your event. On particularly hot days, or for events of a moderate intensity lasing longer than 60 minutes, sports drinks may be useful. However, bear in mind they can be high in sugar so only consume them if necessary. For events less than 30 minutes, sports drinks are not needed, and water will be enough!
  • Bask in the glory – Celebrate your success and enjoy what is bound to be a beautiful day in sunny Queensland. Participating in exercise brings a long list of benefits and being able to have fun as a community is as good as gold!