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Reminder to Young Athletes: Stay Hydrated and Stay Cool

By Maureen Williams, ND

Healthnotes Newswire (September 17, 2009)—As groups of kids gather at the local schools for fall football practice, it’s important to remember that heat is no small issue for athletes. Getting overheated, especially when not drinking enough fluids, can lead to heat stroke, which can be life-threatening even in young and healthy athletes. According to a report published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, a panel of experts in sports medicine issued the following recommendations to address the topic of heat stress and related problems in young football players.

Staying hydrated

Sweating, which goes along with any good workout, increases as the temperature rises. Fluid and electrolytes need to be conscientiously replaced during exertion in the heat because dehydration dramatically increases the risk of heat injury. Young sports players, however, tend to drink less than is needed to maintain good hydration levels. Worse, researchers have found that young athletes are often dehydrated when they arrive for practice, making it much more difficult to stay at a safe hydration level. Add padded safety gear and a uniform and these young athletes are highly likely to get overheated.

The panel made the following suggestions for maintaining safe hydration levels:

• Each youth football participant should start every practice well-hydrated, well-nourished, well-rested, and with a normal body temperature.

• Kids should take breaks during practice sessions for rest, cooling, and rehydration every 30 to 45 minutes, and more often as heat and humidity rise.

• Chilled fluids should be close at hand, and the breaks should be long enough to encourage adequate intake.

Getting used to the heat

The report reminds trainers and coaches that many young football players are not in top physical condition and are not acclimatized to heat at the start the season. Historically, most early-season football heat stroke deaths have occurred on the first four days of practice.

To minimize the risk of heat injury through acclimatization and conditioning, the panel had these recommendations:

• Implement gradual increases in practice intensity and duration, as well as gradual introduction of protective gear, over the first two weeks of preseason practice.

• Players should remove helmets, shoulder pads, and other insulating covering during practice as often as is appropriate.

• Workout clothing should be light-colored, as some evidence suggests that this can help reduce the risk of overheating.

Other ways to stay cool

“Young football players should not have to suffer heat injuries or die from heat stroke,” the report states. “Heat injury can be reduced if parents, coaches, and others involved with youth football programs have access to and utilize the right information.” The panel offered these further recommendations for protecting young athletes from heat injury:

• Schedule practices during the cooler times of day, such as morning and evening, and not between noon and 4 pm—the hottest time of day. Cancel practice if the weather conditions pose a danger.

• In addition to making hydration drinks available and appealing, encourage players to take their regular drink breaks in the shade.

• Advise young football players not to use stimulants such as caffeine, ephedrine, and ma huang (Chinese ephedra).

• Any player that appears to be sick should be excused from practice.

• Coaches can consider using a simple urine test called urine specific gravity to assess hydration status and taking temperatures before and during practice in extreme conditions.

• Be sure coaches and staff are trained to look for signs of heat stress: pale color, bright red flushing, dizziness, headache, excessive fatigue, fainting, vomiting, complaining of being hot or cold, and changes in performance, personality, or well-being should all be considered warning signs and players with these symptoms should immediately be removed from practice.

(Med Sci Sports Exerc 2005;37:1421-30)

Maureen Williams, ND, received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania and her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Seattle, WA. She has a private practice on Cortes Island in British Columbia, Canada, and has done extensive work with traditional herbal medicine in Guatemala and Honduras. Dr. Williams is a regular contributor to Healthnotes Newswire.