When I was 16, my brother was in a pinch to fill a roster for a softball tournament, so I volunteered to help out.
Playing baseball several times a week, I figured a few softball games would be no big deal. What I didn’t account for was the toll the 105-degree temperature and sun would take on me.
By the middle of the afternoon I found myself getting weak, and it only got worse. After legging out a hit, I nearly collapsed after reaching first base and began cramping from my toes, feet, abs, arms and even to my face.
I started to black out, and that’s when I ended up at the emergency room hooked up to an IV for several hours to restore essential electrolytes that I had depleted from my body.
This was my introduction to heat exhaustion, a serious condition caused by prolonged exposure to extreme heat and the unbalanced replacement of fluids.
Some warning signs of heat exhaustion are heavy sweating, paleness, weakness, dizziness, muscle cramps, nausea and fainting.
Decatur athletic trainer Fernando Escobar said heat exhaustion is the middle ground of heat-related illnesses.
“It starts with heat cramps, which are painful,” Escobar said. “It’s your body starting to shut down from the lack of bloodflow. Heat exhaustion is the second-most concerning. You need to stop what you’re doing, cool down your neck, underarms and groin area.
“The most serious and life-threatening is heat stroke. Your internal body temperature can reach 105 to 107 and you go into shock and seizures. You need to go to the emergency room.”
He warns that the line from heat exhaustion to stroke is very small.
“If you’re feeling the effects of heat exhaustion, stop exercising immediately,” Escobar said. “A stroke is right behind it. There’s only one or two degrees of difference in body temperatures.”
Since that first scare, I’ve found myself on the brink of pushing the limits in the heat several times. A majority of those incidents have come in the past seven years while training for marathons.
To stay in condition to run long distances, you have to train year round, and that includes in the middle of summer. Through trial, error and making a lot of mistakes, I’ve learned how to survive, get the training and stay healthy.
Here are a few ideas and tips from me and others to keep you on the move through the summer:
Run when it’s cool – This may sound like common sense, but it helps you train better, according to Decatur cross country coach David Park, who is a veteran distance runner.
“Some people think if I run in the heat, I’ll be more heat tolerant,” Park said. “That’s just being stupid. Your body has only a finite amount of energy for a workout. If you’re running when it’s 95 degrees, you’re using part of that energy to keep your system cool. If you’re training to get faster, you can’t do that if you’re wasting energy. To get quality work, you have to do it when it is cooler.”
As a rule of thumb during the summer, Park tells his athletes to start before 6:30 a.m. or wait until after dark to run. But Park says once you start running at night, you need to stay on the night schedule until an off-day to give your body proper rest.
Keep tabs on your weight – After a good workout, it’s nice to see that you may have shed a few pounds. But it’s nothing to celebrate about. This is mostly fluids that you need to replace, especially if it’s more than five pounds.
“If an athlete has lost more than five pounds, they need to be monitored for six to 12 hours along with their fluid intake,” Escobar said.
He suggests athletes get a pre-workout weight, then weigh again afterwards to see how much fluid they sweat out.
Urine test – The color of your urine is a good way to see if you are getting enough fluids.
“If it’s clear, it’s a good sign,” Escobar said. “If it’s dark yellow to orange and smells, you’re dehydrated.”
Dress for success – If it’s hot, dress in lightweight, breathable clothing, preferably light in color.
Eat right – Eat fruit with potassium such as bananas and also avoid sugar and candy. Diets with carbohydrates, complex sugars and protein will help your body.
“Diet is very important,” Escobar said.
Drink lots of water before and after – It’s the most basic, but perhaps least-practiced, of the tips. I’m guilty. But your body needs water before, during and after working out to maintain performance.
Escobar said it’s the best fluid to take in because it’s natural and not high in sugar like a lot of sports drinks. He added to drink before and take fluids in slowly during your workout.
“If you’re thirsty, it’s too late,” Escobar said.
Park has his athletes after a workout fill a water jug and drink the entire gallon before the next day.
The coach also suggests runners stash water on their long runs to keep themselves hydrated and also to give themselves practice at drinking fluids on their runs.
Be smart – Most importantly, listen to your body and know your limits. Overdoing it in the heat one day can put you out for several days – and even be deadly.