Coaches face a dilemma every August.
On one hand, the start of the preseason means getting their players in shape, but they have to do it during the hottest time of the year. This combination forces them to monitor how much they push their players during the late summer heat.
Rett Larson, the director of coaching at Velocity Sports Performance and a member of USA Football’s Football and Wellness Committee, suggests a number of strategies when dealing with the heat, one of which is changing up the exercises during conditioning.
Running shorter distances with intermittent push-ups or sit-ups can get a player’s core warmed up faster and safer than just running.
“Getting creative is a good way to balance conditioning and safety,” Larson said. “Not only is it safer to do gassers with another movement, but it also trains different muscles than just doing straight gassers.”
ADDITIONAL VIDEO: Click here for more hot weather tips from Texas A&M University athletic trainer David Weir, courtesy of the American Football Coaches Association.
During hot August practices, more blood rushes to the skin rather than flowing between organs. This causes heart rates to go up and lungs to work harder to get oxygen.
“Your blood goes to your skin as thermal regulation,” Larson said. “Your blood actually acts as a heat sink and helps regulate your skin temperature to keep it near homeostasis.”
Conditioning while sweating profusely trains the heart effectively. The heart has to pump harder than usual because it lacks the oxygen that blood provides during normal conditions.
But when players aren’t used to losing large amounts of sweat, like what happens in August practices, organs work need to work even harder to keep up the demand for energy.
This calls for more breaks. Coaches shouldn’t be hesitant to take more stops for water during August practices, Larson said.
“Coaches don’t have to feel bad about breaks,” Larson said. “You have to have your guys give more in less time with short, intense exercises while giving them a break about every 15 minutes.”
The time of day when practices and conditioning occur also can help keep players cool. Practices in the early morning or at night allow for players to cool off easier, which come from the increased convection from the breeze that occurs during these times.
Coaches also need to be cautious during extreme humidity. The humidity doesn’t allow for all the sweat flowing from the player to evaporate, which causes blood to stay near skin instead of flowing back between organs.
“It’s a misconception that just sweating does something for these players,” Larson said. “It doesn’t do anything unless it can evaporate and cool the blood. In near-100 percent humidity, it’s not going to do anything.”
Players can combat the heat by wearing sweat-resistant apparel. These shirts force sweat to the outside of the fabric, allowing it to evaporate easier.
"If you're wearing thick cotton shirts, that shirt acts like a greenhouse and the heat can't escape,” Larson said.
Coaches and parents should make sure players come to train fully hydrated.
“That’s half the battle,” Larson said. “We educate our guys about staying properly hydrated and send out emails to remind them to drink the right amount of water.”
Proper hydration also helps athletes avoid cramping, which generally is caused by the loss of sodium, potassium and other minerals through sweat, Lisa Dorfman, director of sports nutrition and performance at the University of Miami Department of Sports Medicine, said in her book, Performance Nutrition for Football. Not replenishing these minerals can lead to even more severe illnesses.
"The challenge is that when blood is diluted of sodium, your thirst drive is affected, too," Dorfman said. "So the key is to rehydrate with fluids that replace sodium - like sports drinks."
Dorfman said today's athletes get plenty of sodium in their diets. It's potassium and magnesium they can miss most, both of which also are found in sports drinks.
"Young athletes typically doin't eat enough fruits and vegetables, the primary sources for potassium ," Dorfman said. "Magnesium also helps the heart to beat steady, supports your immune system, keeps bones strong and is involved in protein synthesis required for building muscles."