How are athletes beating the heat?
Competing in hotter conditions may come more naturally to Indian athletes. Yet, in long-distance and endurance events, tackling the heat plays a key role
On Wednesday at the Budapest World Athletics Championships, the women's 5,000m heats had to be moved from the morning to evening session due to soaring temperatures deemed "not an acceptable level for our athletes" by the world body. Keely Hodgkinson, the English season-leading 800m runner, had to turn to her portable fan to cool things down post her heats.
Extreme weather tweaking schedules and testing athletes in global athletics events isn’t new. But, as per a latest study by World Athletics (WA), awareness and education among athletes about preparing for such hot conditions, as well as its possible risk to health, is still far from ideal.
The study, published in June this year, asked 66 athletes from 16 countries (including one from India) who competed at the 2022 Race Walking Team Championships in Muscat about their heat preparation and knowledge before turning up for a meet with higher temperatures.
The study noted that 43% of them did no specific training for the Muscat heat. About 34% used the natural heat acclimatization process, 19% went a step further with heat acclimation techniques (train in artificial hot indoor setup) and only 5% did both. Three of the four surveyed medallists resorted to acclimation for the event. A high 83% of them were simply ignorant of heat-related material made available by WA that could aid their performance and safety.
Training and competing in hotter conditions may come more naturally to Indian athletes. Yet, in long-distance and endurance events (race walk, marathon, decathlons, etc), tackling the heat plays a key role.
Tejaswin Shankar, India’s top high jumper and decathlete, experienced it at the Inter-State championships, in which he competed soon after moving back to India from the US where he was based for a few years. Anticipating that his body would not be tuned to the rigours of decathlon in Bhubaneswar’s April heat, the 24-year-old tweaked his training schedule in the US.
“I specifically chose to do at least two sessions per week in the middle of the day, around 3pm, just to get used to the feel of training in that kind of weather," Tejaswin, who won the meet and is eyeing a decathlon medal at the Asian Games, said.
Racewalker Sandeep Kumar went to Odisha’s capital city from his training base in cooler Bengaluru having to deal with “different level of humidity”. The two-time Olympian, who won the 20km race walk event in Bhubaneswar, also stuck to natural acclimatization in its leadup.
“We alter the intensity of our training depending on the conditions we expect in competition. We also change timings — start earlier in the evenings when it is warmer," said Kumar, the 2022 Commonwealth Games (CWG) 10,000m race walk bronze medallist.
Neither Kumar nor Tejaswin has turned to artificial acclimation techniques thus far, although the latter has seen and heard of athletes "creating their own little training set up inside the sauna” to brace up for competitions in hot weather.
Researching and coming up with his own “hydration strategies”, as he labels it, is something Tejaswin believes has worked well for him. And so, in Bhubaneswar, he carried a couple of towels, ice jacket, pickle juice and plenty of electrolytes to go with water because “I tend to sweat a lot and lose a lot of minerals".
“It’s very subjective, but just knowing those minute things and what you need to do to counter the risk of cramps and other things during competition is important," said the Birmingham CWG high jump bronze medallist.
Both Kumar and Tejaswin, however, concur that excessive heat training can be counterproductive. “If you expose your body and training routines to that kind of temperatures for a prolonged period, it will have a negative impact on your body and performance,” Kumar, for whom the heat at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 was unmatched, said.
For athletes, though, turning it on in meets with heat is here to stay, as the Budapest Worlds has reiterated. “With global warming, we're increasingly faced with the problem of organising competitions in hot, humid conditions," Frederic Garrandes, the study's lead, told WA. "This poses a health and performance problem for the athletes.”
The need for awareness among athletes about coping with heat in every aspect — preparation, performance and health — therefore gets heightened.
“From an Indian standpoint, especially since our calendar has 4-5 big meets in the heat, it’s important to know what to do in the heat," Tejaswin said. “The next step would be to know what to do in those conditions to give yourself the best chance of competing well.”