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Beat the Heat

Get out while avoiding heat-related illnesses

Here comes the sun. Photo by Mary Reed.

When Krissy Moehl ran the Western States 100 in July, it was an especially hot day on top of the stress of an ultramarathon. Krissy finished the race but soon after found herself in the medical tent – for six hours. She was given fluid intravenously and orally but puked it up. Eventually she recovered, but the reality of overdoing it in the heat hit home. It doesn’t take an ultramarathon to bring on heat stroke, and being an outdoor athlete automatically puts you at risk for heat-related illnesses. Taking the right precautions can help you avoid them.

Heat-related illnesses. Heat stroke is only one of several heat-related illnesses. Others include dehydration, heat exhaustion and heat stress. Heat stress and heat exhaustion are more common. Symptoms for heat stress and exhaustion tend to look the same: pale face, extreme sweat, nausea, vomiting and extreme tiredness. However, those suffering from a heat stroke look obviously sick because they exhibit a changed mental status, are disoriented, have hot dry skin and could even be unconscious. A heat stroke can kill.

Lowering your risks. “No one is immune to heat-related illnesses but you can lower your risks,” says Tod Schimelpsenig, curriculum director for the Wilderness Medical Institute. One way to lower your risk is to hydrate. Avoid the hot times of the day – the best times are early morning and late evening to avoid not only the heat but also the humidity. Another important way to lower your risk of a heat-related illness is to give your body time to adjust to the heat. If you are starting a new workout program, give yourself a week to 10 days to let your body adjust, says Tod. When starting a new program, start slow. Moderation is a good way to start exercising in the heat, says Greg Friese, Wilderness Medical Associates lead instructor.

Prevention. The best way to prevent a heat-related illness is to listen to your body. Everyone is different so it is important to train outside to see what works for your body and then adjust the workout appropriately. “If you feel like you are overdoing it, you probably are,” says Greg. There are other ways to prevent heat-related illnesses. A wide brimmed hat or bandanna will help to keep the heat off your head as well as protect your skin from the sun. Dipping the bandanna in water whenever possible helps to keep you cool. Especially in the summer when out all day, sun protection is an issue. In addition to the hat/bandanna, lightweight pants or long sleeve cotton shirts with collars are best for protection and ventilation. If you feel you are overdoing it, stop and rest in the shade to cool down. It is common to lose more fluids than can be replaced when working out in the heat. Therefore, it is important to not only hydrate with water but to replace electrolytes through salty snacks or sports drinks. Be careful with medications such as antihistamines, antidepressants and alcohol. These can affect your metabolic rate and increase your risk for heat-related illness. When talking to your physician ask how certain medications can directly affect your health when exercising in the heat.

Treatment. If you find someone experiencing the symptoms of heat exhaustion, heat stress or dehydration it is important to get them out of the sun and into the shade to cool them down. Take off extra layers of clothing. Then replace their lost fluids with water and give them a salty snack in order to replace lost electrolytes. A heat stroke should be treated differently. Cool them down right away with water or a fan and monitor brain function because changes in mental status may indicate dangerous changes in temperature. The victim should also be taken to the hospital for further medical treatment.