Published in the Texas Coach, August 1997

Overcoming The Texas Heat Through Proper Hydration

Tom McCullough MEd., MSS


Sometimes I feel like there should be some kind of rule that football season can't start until the first cold front comes. As we are all too aware, the heat in Texas can be devastating. Not only is it almost unbearable for the coaches, but every year we have several heat related injuries with our athletes. These problems range from simple heat cramps to heat stroke. These injuries always result in lack of physical and mental performance on the field.

What Happens When The Athlete Dehydrates

The amount of water the body needs vary, depending on the individual's body weight and age. Under normal circumstances, most of us only need 2 to 3 quarts of water a day to maintain a normal water balance in the body. However, with the addition of heat, high humidity, and exercise our needs increase drastically. As more of the body's supply of water is lost through sweating, more of its supply of electrolytes are eliminated. Heat cramps are usually accompanied by this loss, usually by that night or the next day. The loss of water also causes dehydration or heat exhaustion, which will result in fainting or nausea. With heat exhaustion, the skin of the athlete will look pale, but the athlete will still be sweating. Heat stroke is the most serious of the heat related injuries. Heat stroke usually occurs when the athlete has lost excessive amounts of water. The skin is usually warm and red, and sweating is usually not usually present. The body temperature will be very high. If the athlete's body temperature is not cooled immediately, it could be fatal.

Why Do Some Athletes Have More Problems With Heat Injuries

There are a number of factors that will determine whether an athlete is predisposed to heat injury including sex, level of fitness, age, body composition, previous history of heat injury, and the degree of acclimatization. Several studies have shown that females are more sensitive to heat than males. But the degree of tolerance in females is also very dependent on fitness level.

Age also plays a very important role in determining heat tolerance. Young children and older adults seem to have more problems when compared with adults. Children actually produce more heat when exercising as well and are less capable of producing sweat to cool their bodies.

Athletes that have higher percentages of body fat will have more problems with heat injury than athletes that are lean. Body fat deters heat loss so these athletes have more trouble cooling the body. So obviously, your offensive and defensive linemen should be watched a little more closely.

How Can Heat Related Problems Be Avoided

Many times, coaches and athletic trainers give their athletes salt tablets or potassium supplements to help replace some of the electrolytes lost during sweating. In general, this is not necessary. Normal diet should replace all of the necessary electrolytes. Potassium supplements are even considered to be dangerous because excessive dosages can disturb the electrical rhythm of the heart. Extra salt in the athletes' food will adequately replace any salt loses, and citrus fruits, bananas, and orange juice will easily replace needed potassium.

Protein is very necessary to for an athlete, but excesses will actually cause the body to produce slightly more heat due to extra heat produced through metabolism. So avoid eating too much protein before a game or practice. Caffeine and alcohol should also be avoided several hours before exercise. Caffeine and alcohol act as a diuretic, causing the body to lose water much quicker and it also raises the body's temperature. So coffee, tea, alcohol, and soft drinks should be avoided by athletes.

Heat acclimatization usually takes about two weeks. During this time it will be necessary to gradually get the body use to exercise in the heat. This will allow the body to gradually increase its ability to dissipate heat with less stress on the cardiovascular system.

How Much Water Does The Athlete Need To Drink

The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that athletes should drink 16 ounces of water or a half a quart two hours before exercise to help avoid dehydration.

In addition, new recommendations suggest that an athlete should also drink 5 to 12 ounces of cold water every 15 to 20 minutes during practice. Coaches should also encourage their athletes to drink plenty of water throughout the day. An athlete should never pass a water fountain without getting a drink, even if they are not thirsty. Thirst does not usually develop until about 1 to 2 percent of the body weight has dehydrated.

Athletes should also be required to weigh before and after practice. This will give both the coach and the athlete an idea of exactly water was actually lost during practice. For every pound that was lost, the athlete should consume one pint of water. This should adequately rehydrate the athlete and help to reduce the chances of dehydration the next practice. Because many athletes will not voluntarily drink enough water, it may even be necessary to not allow them to leave until weight losses are regained.

Normally, cool tap water is considered the best for optimal hydration and rehydration. However, athletes that exercise in the heat for more than an hour and a half will be better off drinking a sports drink. This drink should contain not only electrolytes, but it should have an ample supply of carbohydrates. Look for sports beverages that have 38 to 77 calories per 8 ounces and 4% to 8% carbohydrates. More that these amounts will slow the process of digestion and take too much time getting into the body. Many times it is a good idea to water down sports drinks. Not only will they go further and serve more athletes, but they will get into the athlete's system much quicker.

Since it is highly unlikely that we will ever see football start later in the year when it is cooler for us in Texas, coaches must just learn how to deal with the heat. By teaching our athletes simple techniques for proper hydration, these heat related injuries can be avoided or reduced greatly. Give your athletes water breaks ever 15 to 20 minutes and learn to recognize the symptoms of heat related injuries. The time invested in proper hydration on and off the field will result in optimal physical and mental performance during games and practice.


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