‘Control the controllable’ has become a central mantra in performance sport. But what do we do about one of the most uncontrollable factors that threatens our performance and health: the environment?
Given the recent heatwave in the UK and the blistering temperatures (and humidity) endured by our Olympic triathletes in Japan, we’re acutely aware of the potentially negative performance impact of extreme weather. While there’s little we can do to control the weather, there are ways to reduce the negative impact of the environment on performance and health.
How to acclimatise
It’s not only heat that has the potential to destroy performance and endanger health; cold conditions, altitude and travel can be equally problematic. As the director of research at the British Olympic Medical Centre, I was responsible for the environmental strategy for many Olympics, both summer and winter.
These strategies encompassed a range of variables that are central to performance enhancement, including: acclimation/acclimatisation; hydration/nutrition; clothing; technical/tactical; and medical planning.
Human beings have a remarkable plasticity, which enhances performance through environment-specific adaptations. For example, our extraordinary ability to sweat allows us to thermoregulate in hot environments. However, in order to optimise this ability, we must acclimate (using artificial environments i.e. chambers) and/or acclimatise (using natural environments).
Sweating on its own is not enough, though, so sweat must be able to evaporate to optimise heat loss during exercise. To that end, appropriate clothing (material, colour, fit etc.) must provide an environment for this all important ‘evaporative sweat loss’.
Control the uncontrollable
To counteract the rapid loss of body fluids due to sweating, we must maintain normal hydration levels, which requires an individually designed, planned and practised rehydration strategy. Additional support may be provided through ‘pre-cooling’ strategies (reducing core body temperature) prior to exercise and the modification of race/pacing strategy, to aid the rise in core body temperature during exercise in the heat.
When it comes to cold environments, it’s not simply a case of reversing the interventions employed in the heat. For example, dehydration can actually be more problematic in cold environments. And increased fluid loss in cold environments comes in many forms, such as wearing too many items of clothing.
Instead, choose thin, layered clothing that allows you to decrease/increase insulation from the cold when necessary. And always remember to protect the periphery (i.e ears, nose, fingers and toes). Furthermore, increased fluid loss from breathing out in the cold and an increase in urination exacerbate dehydration in the cold.
There are also numerous environmental challenges linked to altitude, travel fatigue and jet lag, which, if not planned for, have the potential to negatively impact performance in training and racing. Planning and practising your personalised environmental strategies is the best way to ‘control the uncontrollable’ and optimise your performance.
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