For sports that are played outdoors, the weather can dramatically impact an athlete’s performance. It can and often changes the outcome of who wins and loses. It can even increase the likelihood of injury or make an athlete seriously ill. The most common form is from extreme heat. Hot weather causes dehydration, leading to a myriad of issues for athletes ranging from reduced performance to heatstroke. Obviously, we want to prevent all forms of detriment from the heat. We are all aware of the importance of hydration, nutrition, and rest can be for an athlete battling hot weather. A lesser-known strategy that athletes and coaches should be aware of is heat acclimatization. While a hot day can ruin anyone’s practice or game, being accustomed to the weather can benefit the athlete.
I played college baseball in Kentucky. Our coach is from the Los Angeles area. Using his connections, he recruited heavily in the Southern California area. By the time I was a senior, we had about a dozen guys from the L.A. area on the team. This made our first practices pretty interesting. In Kentucky, the weather is hot and very humid in August. We would always laugh at the new Cali guys, who had seemingly never experienced humidity before. They were used to hot but had no idea how much sweat they could produce or how thick and heavy the air could get. Those hot August days were rough for them.
But after a few practices, the complaints slowed down. They became somewhat accustomed to the heat and knew how to handle it. That is heat acclimatization 101. The body is incredibly resilient to change to survive and thrive.
When it comes to sports performance, athletes and teams are always looking for an edge to perform better. If hot and humid weather can be especially detrimental to a team traveling from a cooler environment, the home team can have a great advantage. Teams traveling to a hot and/or humid climate may need extra special care to perform their best. One of those critical parameters is having enough time to adjust to the temperatures.
When an athlete isn’t properly acclimatized to an environment, a few body functions, in particular, have difficulty staying within their normal ranges. With hot temperatures outside, the body struggles to maintain proper core and skin internal temperatures. Also, the heart rate climbs to unnecessary levels, and excessive sweat can be lost. A properly acclimatized body will better control body temperature and heart and sweat rates.
Recent research shows that athletes typically need more time than they are given to fully adjust to a hot playing environment. Research from the University of Arizona and Arizona State University found that there are two parts to heat acclimatization for athletes. The first is time. Athletes need to spend at least five days in the weather to properly adjust to the high temperatures. The other factor is time spent exercising. Simply spending time in an environment is enough for the typical person to adapt to a hot climate. But for athletes, time spent exercising is crucial for proper acclimatization. Their research shows that athletes need about 300 minutes of exercise in those five days to adjust properly.
To recap, five days and 300 minutes of exercise (1 hour per day for five days) to properly acclimatize.
Unfortunately, we have to be sensitive and understand that this isn’t practical for most levels of sports. At the time of this writing, the Cincinnati Bengals just played in the 2021-2022 season Super Bowl vs. the Los Angeles Rams. The weather in L.A. was over 90 degrees at the start of the game. Meanwhile, in my hometown of Cincinnati, I know for a fact that it snowed over 6 inches that week, and the Bengals don’t have an indoor facility to practice in. (They were able to use the University of Cincinnati’s indoor practice field that week, however.) Even then, the team traveled Tuesday, which gave them right at the five days necessary to adjust properly.
But for schools and travel teams with budgets and homework to do, arriving five days early to the game isn’t practical. With that, athletes should do what they can to prepare for a hot environment. If possible, practices should be scheduled when the day is at its hottest. An 8 am practice probably isn’t going to be near as warm as the temperature of any upcoming game. Plus, it is helpful to practice at the time of day you want to perform your best.
Teams can also wear warmer than comfortable clothing to simulate a hotter environment. Now, we need to be ethical. Coaches shouldn’t be cramming their athletes in a sauna or wearing hoodies when it’s 80 degrees out. If you are traveling to a place that’s at least 20 degrees warmer than the environment that you are used to, simply adding another layer of clothes or adjusting the practice schedule can go a long way.
If you can’t show up five days early to a site, replicating the sight at home can be advantageous. It is proven to be beneficial to your heart rate, sweat rate, and body temperatures in ways that can boost performance.
Keep Athletes Safe
Player safety is always the most important factor in sports. Every athlete needs to be conditioned to play in their upcoming environment. Just like running suicides or doing pushups can benefit any athlete, acclimatizing to a hot climate can properly condition an athlete as well.
Approximately 9,000 athletes per year are treated for heat-related illnesses. Sadly, some of these result in fatalities. The vast majority of heat-related illness happens in football. Football coaches and athletes need to be especially aware of all available heat illness prevention strategies, including those highlighted in this article.
Acclimatizing to hot environments can help keep athletes safe. That’s always priority number 1. Number 2, it has been proven to help athletes perform their best in environments where there is a frequent disadvantage.
To Recap for Proper Acclimatization:
- Arrive five days early
- Spend one hour of practice per day (300 minutes total)
If you cannot do this:
- Practice when it is hottest outside
- Wear clothes to keep athletes warm, but be safe and don’t overdo it
- Consider practice or conditioning inside a warm gym
- Consider extended warmups at practice
And always drink plenty of fluids, regardless.