Smarten Up... Why Athletes Shouldn't Just Tough It Out

by Dr. Michael Glassman, DPT

In recent years there have been growing concerns for football players staying safe on the field, and many people brush it off saying this generation just needs to toughen up. Maybe that’s true, or maybe we just haven’t been focusing on the facts.

Between 1997 and 2005, the number of heat-related sports injuries increased by 133%. Between 2005 and 2009 alone, there were more heatstroke deaths than any other five-year period! These numbers may look scary, but you don't have to be as concerned when you educate yourself and learn the warning signs of heatstroke. More importantly, heatstroke is preventable when you take action to assure your players are staying hydrated and staying safe on the field.

Try these modifications that every football player should follow during hot/humid weather.

Change practice to the coolest part of the day.  Lag time from the sun causes the hottest part of the day to peak around 3:00 pm, and taper down for the next few hours. With this being said, practices should start no earlier than 5:00 pm, when the temperature has cooled.

Frequent Rest Breaks and Modifying the Amount of Equipment Worn Based on the Environment. Wearing all your gear during practice can cause your body to overheat, so it is important to remove your gear during rest periods. During this time, try sitting in the shade and take off your shoulder pads and helmets to cool your bodies before getting back on the field.

Access to fluids. Everybody knows to stay hydrated, but not many people know the appropriate amount of water they are supposed to drink. The popular belief that you need 8 glasses with 8 oz of water a day may not be true for everyone. Generally, athletes should drink 16-20 oz of water at least 1 hour before practice, then continue to drink at least 6-12 oz every 10-15 minutes. Once practice is over, you should drink a minimum of 16-24 oz to help replenish what your body has lost.

Individualized Hydration Protocols. While every player, no matter how big or small, needs to stay hydrated, bigger players are just going to need more. It's simple physics - more size requires more energy expenditure. Offensive and defensive linemen are the bigger players, so they are going to need more fluids. With that being said, it is important to note that offensive and defensive linemen do not cover as much ground as skill positions do. Since skill players (running backs, receivers, quarterbacks, and defensive backs) are doing a lot of running at top speeds over longer distances, they need to replenish water lost more often.

Ensure Adequate Fitness Levels and Heat Acclimatization. Adapting to the heat can be beneficial to both safety and performance. Try using a gradual exposure technique to heat and time spent on the field. To become acclimated to the heat, the first week of practices should be single-practices lasting no longer than 2 hours, with athletes wearing helmets only. From there, they can start practicing in full equipment and even have double sessions. What is important to remember is never having consecutive double-session days, and each double-session must have a break of at least 3 hours with the total session lasting no longer than 5 hours.

These changes can help improve performance and prevent exhaustion and heat illness while on the field. If you don’t let your body acclimate to the heat and equipment, then it can have an impact on your performance. By not recovering fully between plays, you will be left fatigued and lacking focus during drills and games.

By implementing each of these changes and strategies into practices, you can reduce the risk of any heat-related injury and keep players safe, on the field, and ready for the season.


- Learn more about the author: Dr. Mike Glassman

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