It’s summer 2021 and there are a lot of races back on peoples’ calendars—road races in full sun, gravel races in high humidity, and mountain bike races in the heat of the day. People are ready to make up for lost time by diving back into their sport. But is pushing until you puke a good idea? Do you know what the signs are of heat exhaustion? Do you know what the long-term effects are of heat stroke? This article will review some of what you might want to consider before gearing up for a hard ride in summer heat.
The CDC lists five types of heat-related illness: heat stroke, heat exhaustion, heat cramps, sunburn, and heat rash. Most people are familiar with sunburn and heat rash which have varying levels of intensity. This article will focus on heat stroke, heat exhaustion, and heat cramps. In terms of severity—a heat stroke is most severe, followed by heat exhaustion, and the least severe is heat cramps.
Heat stroke can occur when a person’s internal body temperature begins to rise as a result of prolonged exposure to heat. Heat stroke requires emergency treatment; and according to Mayo Clinic, damage to internal organs like the brain, heart, and kidneys worsens the longer treatment is delayed. Heat stroke is SERIOUS. So what do you need to look out for?
- A high body temperature (104 F or above)
- Hot, dry, red, or damp skin
- Fast, strong pulse
- Passing out (loss of consciousness)
If you suspect that you or a friend are having a heat stroke then you should call 911 and seek treatment. Other action items include trying to move the person to a cooler place, but do not attempt to give the person anything to drink. A good rule of thumb is to always mark the time that any symptoms start. Did you or your friend start feeling dizzy around 1:30 in the afternoon? That’s good information to share with medical professionals. You can help try to cool the person slowly by placing cool rags on their body until they are in the care of medical professionals.
Heat exhaustion can be a precursor to heat stroke. A person may begin to feel symptoms of heat exhaustion before they reach heat stroke. Like heat stroke heat exhaustion occurs when the body fails to keep cool and its internal temperature begins to rise. Symptoms of heat exhaustion are slightly different than those of heat stroke.
- Heavy sweating
- Cold, pale, clammy skin
- Fast, weak pulse
- Nausea or vomiting
- Muscle cramps
- Tiredness or weakness
- Passing out (loss of consciousness)
Heat exhaustion may require emergency treatment depending on severity and whether a person doesn’t feel better within an hour. When in doubt—call 911. Other actions that you can take to help someone who is experiencing heat exhaustion is to move them to a cooler place, loosen clothing, give water for sipping, and put cool rags on the person.
Heat cramps are different from cramps that occur when pushing your limits during a workout (those cramps are cleverly terms exercise-associated muscle cramps or EAMC). Heat cramps are painful muscle spasms that occur during or after intense exercise and sweating in high heat. Some folks find that consuming electrolytes and sodium can help prevent muscle cramps or ease them once they have started. Symptoms of heat cramps are simple: painful muscle cramping, usually in the legs. A person may require medical treatment for heat cramps. You can help a person who is experiencing heat cramps by encouraging them to stop exercising/physical activity, helping them find a cooler place to rest, and giving them a sport’s drink to drink.
There is an old saying—an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. And following that theme, here are some heat illness prevention tips for your summer riding.
- Don’t go ‘full gas’ (all out physically) in extreme heat. Use the day’s ride to enjoy being outside and not as a day to push your limits.
- Train hard in a cool environment such as a house with A/C. If you’re on a training plan that requires maximum effort then using your trainer inside with a fan will be more effective than achieving your intervals outside with a side of heat exhaustion.
- Choose a sports drink with electrolytes (like Infinit Nutrition!) instead of plain water. Some folks like to carry extra tabs of electrolytes or servings of powdered drink mix for refilling their bottles on long rides. However—please follow manufacture directions for mixing parts of drink mix to water. You definitely don’t want to put too much mix in with your water. If anything, in hot weather, you might add more water and less drink mix to keep from overloading your stomach with glucose/fructose.
- Ride early in the morning when temperatures are at their coolest.
- Keep a cooler with ice and cold drinks in your vehicle for after the ride hydration. I prefer to keep sparking water like TopoChico in ice water for a cool, recovery drink.
- Listen to your body—if the ride isn’t fun and if you are feeling overheated then take a break. You know you best. If you start feeling the slightest bit ‘chilly’ or ‘cold’ when your brain knows the temperature is hot then STOP and find a place to rest.
- Plan your water stops carefully. Ask for a GPS copy of a route and whether the group plans to have a store stop. Pack cash in case you need to stop at a small gas station to purchase cold water or snacks.
- If riding off road then consider packing a water filter. Yes, riding through trees might be cooler than roasting on the open road… but there’s nothing worse than being stuck in a forest with no cell coverage and running low on water. Carrying a filter allows for you to use water from a stream or lake to refill in case of an emergency.
- When riding off-road I put hydration mix in a water bottle and plain water in my hydration pack. As a rule I only ever put water in my hydration pack and carry sports drinks in my water bottles. It makes for easier clean out of the hydration bladder and prevents the bladder from picking up the flavor from drink mixes.
Summer days are wonderful even if they are hot! I hope that this article has reminded you of the seriousness of heat-related illnesses, given you the list of symptoms to watch for, provided actions you can take after becoming too hot, and shared helpful tips for PREVENTING heat-related illness.
For more information please visit the following links:
Who is Samantha Wotiz?
Samantha Wotiz is a statistician with five years of experience working in public health as a contractor at a large, federal health agency. She graduated from Georgia State with her Masters in Public Health in fall of 2017.