FORT RUCKER, Ala. – Participating in strenuous activities during the summer months isn’t for everyone, but for Soldiers, it’s business as usual.
In addition to the physical demands of Soldiering, some service members participate in extracurricular sports activities, thus increasing their exposure to extremely hot and humid conditions.
According to the MayoClinic.com website, exercising in hot weather puts extra stress on a body. However, heat-related illnesses / injuries are largely preventable. By taking some basic precautions, exercise routines don’t have to be sidelined when the heat is on.
“When Soldiers assess and address the risks associated with hot weather exercise regimens, they’re less likely to suffer a heat illness / injury,” said Lt. Col. James Smith, director, U.S. Army Combat Readiness / Safety Center Ground Directorate. “They can protect themselves while enjoying their sporting activity through preparation and risk mitigation beforehand.”
Master Sgt. Mike Morton, a U.S. Army Special Operations Command liaison officer, is no stranger to exercising and competing in grueling environmental conditions. He’s an ultrarunner who has won nearly 30 races over the course of his career.
He is also the reigning champion of “the world’s toughest foot race” – the Badwater Ultramarathon, a 135-mile nonstop race that starts in Death Valley and ends in Mt. Whitney, Calif. Temperatures during the race routinely soar to 119 F during the day.
“The key is to use a progressive train up to deal with the heat,” Morton said. “The human body is designed to perform in the heat; we have an amazing cooling capacity. We just need to acclimatize to the heat.”
While Morton’s workout regimen is that of an ultrarunner – he averages 140 miles per week – his advice about training in hot weather is applicable to all Soldiers.
“Preparation is important to me, because it makes me visualize what I'm going to do,” he said. “This visualization is what makes success possible, and I think every military person understands the importance of preparation. Sometimes we tend to blow it off in our personal endeavors, but it’s important to make sure you have a plan for any workout or race.”
Hydrating is an important element in any workout plan, and Morton drinks when he’s thirsty to combat dehydration and to maintain proper electrolyte levels.
“I hydrate throughout the day, but the key is to not over hydrate,” he said. “This can cause a depletion of electrolytes and salts.”
“Most of us are taught that drinking when we feel thirsty is too late, and I don’t believe that philosophy,” Morton said. “I drink when I feel thirsty during training and competition, and I’ve never had any issues with cramps or low electrolytes.
“Being prepared during a race means carrying a water bottle so you are not without water when you feel thirsty,” he added. “That’s true for daily runs as well; if you’re not sure there’s a water source along your route, carry a water bottle.”
Morton also tries to stay away from sugar in his food and drinks to avoid insulin spikes during his races and workouts.
“The key is to find a drink that works for your stomach and taste,” he said. “Never underestimate what your body is capable of,” Morton said. “Fuel it with quality fuel and take care of your body, and you’ll be amazed at what you can do.”
While preparing ahead of time before commencing an exercise regimen in the heat is very important, knowing what to do in the event of a heat-related illness / injury is vital as well.
“Summer weather doesn’t have to sideline your outdoor exercise regimen,” said Capt. Scott Gaustad, chief therapist officer, U.S. Public Health Service. “It’s important that Soldiers, athletes or anyone who exercises understand warm and hot weather injury / illness definitions; doing so will help individuals understand and hopefully prevent a heat illness / injury.”
Heat cramps, heat exhaustion (exertional heat injury) and heat stroke are the injuries typically associated with hot weather, with heat stroke being the most dangerous. When a Soldier suffers heat stroke, his or her body’s temperature regulatory system is overcome, and there’s potential for serious permanent injury or death.
Gaustad explained that aside from extremely hot and humid conditions, other factors could make Soldiers more susceptible to heat injury / illness.
“Individuals taking certain medications, including common over-the-counter drugs such as anti-inflammatories or antihistamines; individuals with certain medical conditions, including certain skin disorders or heart conditions; or people with a lower level of physical fitness or history of prior heat illness / injury are all at an increased risk,” he said.
“Identifying a heat injury / illness victim is important,” Gaustad said. “Knowing what to do and administering treatment is crucial and could be the difference between life and death.”
Lori Yerdon, U.S. Army Combat Readiness/Safety Center