In hindsight, this would have been a good article to write before the marathon round at Woronora where the temperatures soared into the high thirties and a number of paddlers struggled with the effects of high exertion in high temperatures.
I’m no expert on physiology, so Ive sought information from marathon runners blogs and magazines where the subject has been debated to exhaustion. There’s a wealth of information available, and most of it is easily transferable from running to paddling.
First let’s look at the way heat can affect an athlete and how to treat the immediate symptoms. I’ve plagiarised that section directly from the source rather than risk misrepresenting the first aid advice.
What you do about it depends on how you feel.
Cause: Dehydration leads to an electrolyte imbalance
Symptoms: Severe abdominal or large-muscle cramps
Treatment: Restore salt balance with foods or drinks that contain sodium
Cause: Often brought on by a sudden stop that interrupts blood flow from the legs to the brain
Treatment: After the fall, elevate legs and pelvis to help restore blood flow to the brain
Cause: Dehydration leads to an electrolyte imbalance
Symptoms: Core body temperature of 39° to 40°C, headache, fatigue, profuse sweating, nausea, clammy skin
Treatment: Rest and apply a cold pack on head/neck; also restore salt balance with foods and drinks with sodium
Cause: Excessive water intake dilutes blood-sodium levels; usually occurs after running for four or more hours
Symptoms: Headache, disorientation, muscle twitching
Treatment: Emergency medical treatment is necessary; hydration in any form can be fatal
Cause: Extreme exertion and dehydration impair your body’s ability to maintain an optimal temperature
Symptoms: Core body temp of 40° or more, headache, nausea, vomiting, rapid pulse, disorientation
Treatment: Emergency medical treatment is necessary for immediate ice-water immersion and IV-fluids
Now that you understand the possible hazards of racing in high temperatures, what can you do to avoid these problems.
Drawing from workplace health and safety, the best and most effective way to reduce a risk is to eliminate it. Put simply, don’t race. The marathon series format includes optional races, so there is always an option to drop a race without impacting your series results. Don’t get fixated on results over personal safety.
Another approach is substitution. Find an alternative event which doesn’t present the same hazard. Paddle a shorter distance in the event, or treat the event as a technique session, paddling better at a slower pace.
Race to the conditions and ignore the clock. Elite runners adjust for the conditions and performance of other competitors, running to win, but prepared to be slower than normal. Adjust your pace to remain competitive expecting everybody to finish slower than usual
Go fishing – most paddlers in the series go out hard to create a lead and then try to hang on to it until the finish. The first problem is that from the lead, it’s hard to judge how much lead is just enough to win. The second is that a hard first half will leave you mentally drained and less aware of your physical condition in the second half of the race. Try going out at a sustainable pace for the first half, getting to the halfway in good condition, and then mentally reeling in the burnt out front runners as they wane in their second half.
Paddle by perceived effort, rather than 1km split times. Make your goal to finish strong, not exhausted.
Once you’ve decided on a race strategy to manage the effects of heat, there are some other things you can do to mitigate the effects of heat before and during the event.
Pre-cooling. Studies have showed that dropping your core temperature slightly before a race (1-1.5C) can improve short race performance by up to 16%. Elite runners use cooling vests , but you can get a similar effect with a wet towel put in the freezer overnight and draped over your shoulders prior to the race. Partially freezing your pre-race drink is also helpful. A tip that adapts very well to paddling is splashing yourself with water, something we have in unlimited quantities.
A squirt from a bottle of chilled water can be very effective physically as well as psychologically.
Hydration. Drink regularly throughout the race. Take the time to hydrate. Skipping a hydration cycle because you’re on a wash ride can be tempting, but is not a good idea in extreme heat. The boat in front may actually be waiting for you to stop first.
Proper hydration starts a few days prior to race day, not on the morning of the race.
Avoid things that dehydrate you. Antihistamines, alcohol, coffee all effect fluid level. If you must have a coffee before the race, consider a half.
Cover up. Wear clothing that’s light in colour, lightweight and has vents or mesh. Wearing r a cap or better yet a visor. Use a sweat and waterproof sunscreen on all exposed skin
Hopefully their gives your a range of options from which you can synthesise a race strategy that works best for you. Ultimately we want to see competitors enjoying the sport while taking personal responsibility for their health and safety.
The last thing anybody wants to see is regulators imposing controls because competitors are putting themselves at risk.