Let’s talk about running. Specifically, running a long way in a hot environment.
From an evolutionary perspective humans are exceptionally well designed to disperse heat from their bodies. We cool ourselves in a fundamentally different way to other mammals - when other animals pant, we sweat. Panting cools animals by bringing air at environmental temperature into the lungs, which is then heated as it passes through the respiratory system, and expelled at a hotter temperature than it arrived to the body at.
The human cooling system on the other hand works mainly by pumping hot blood to the surface of your skin, and this blood is then filtered to become a protein-free, hypotonic plasma filtrate (that’s just blood with the red blood cells, proteins and (most) the salt taken out). This then moves out of your body through your sweat glands and is seen by you as sweat. As sweat evaporates it cools you down.
The human method of cooling has a number of advantages for exercising in hot environments, primarily it allows humans to shed a huge amount of heat into an environment that is already very hot, such as sub-saharan Africa. In short this affords humans a unique ability to exercise in the heat. Also, due to the fact it is such an efficient cooling system, it allows us to exercise for a longer amount of time than many other animals.
In much the same way that athletes train their heart and muscles, the sweating system is can be adapted - there is a whole system working here within the human body that is very trainable, but predominantly ignored by athletes. By exercising “hot” - either in a warm environment or by wearing a jumper & hat - your sweat response changes. Sweat glands become larger and better at re-absorbing the salt in your sweat, while your brain starts your sweat response at a lower body temperature. When trained both of these adaptations make exercise in the heat easier.
What this means for you as an athlete, sports scientist or coach is that you have just been introduced (or reminded if you already knew this stuff) to a physiological variable just as important as any other measure, such as body fat or resting heart rate. Now you know how all about sweat that you can now specifically tailor your training to when necessary. In the lead up to a match / race / competition that you know will be hot it’s smart to change your training accordingly.
From a personal level I saw the importance of this during the Leeds Half Marathon 2016, which was run on a very hot day in May. Generally speaking British runners are not very well adapted to the heat and this can be seen by comparing the finishing times in the 2016 race to the 2015 and 2017 results. If you look at the average finishing time for the top 50 runners you can see that the 2016 race was significantly slower than the years before and after it.
|Average Finishing Time (first 50)||1:18:57||1:21:00||1:19:51|
(The top 5 finishers each year were removed from this since they are very well adapted to the heat so unnaffected by the hot conditions)
On a more anecdotal note I was able to see this in the way other people looked out on the course. Having done lots of “hot” training in the lead up to the race I had a very good sweat response, but most of the runners had been training in the spring, in Yorkshire so were not well adapted to the heat. In the last 15 minutes, when the sun was hottest, I was noticed I was consistently passing lots of other runners, many of whom I knew would have beaten me on a cool day. An added benefit to having good thermoregulation was that I didn’t require a long recovery time after finishing. In fact within a few minutes of crossing the line I had met a friend in a pub close to the finish line! So, the lesson here is clear; by specifically training your sudomotor system in order to create a more severe thermoregulatory response you can get to the pub earlier - although this probably does mean the first round’s on you...
The Olympics are a truly unique event. With each Games that rolls around the best athletes in the world thrill us with their hard-earned talent, paid for in the 4 years preceding the games with blood, sweat and tears. It is not simply the athletic prowess on display that makes the Olympics so amazing; but the fascinating backstories we hear that capture our hearts.
The 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang are set to be no different. We’ve already had North and South Korea enter the games under the same flag; and coming up we’ve got Pita Taufatofua, who represented Tonga in the Taekwondo in Rio 2016, enter the cross country skiing event in Pyeongchang.
One notable entrant to the Pyeongchang Games in Brazil’s Victor Santos. He is also a cross country skier, but unlike Taufatofua, he has been skiing for many years. Santos learnt to roller-ski in the favelas of Rio De Janeiro, under the tuition of Leandro Ribela, a two time Olympian. This was a social program organised in the slums of Rio - that's the Olympic spirit at its finest!
Victor Santos is an amazing modern day example of an athlete who have overcome real adversity to be where he is today. But, on a lighter note, personal favorite Olympic story of mine is that of Don Thompson, the 1960 Olympic 50km race walking gold medalist. As a young man he competed in endurance running events, but when injury struck him aged 18 he switched to race walking and found great success in his new sport. He quickly became the dominant force on the British race walking scene and was selected to represent Great Britain in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics.
The Melbourne Games went very badly for Thompson though. He was forced to retire from the race after collapsing at 45km with heat exhaustion. Thankfully, he was selected for the 1960 Games in Rome. Knowing that the 1960 Games were his last realistic shot at a medal he wanted to do everything he could to maximize his chances and wanted to be sure not to have a repeat of the disaster that was Melbourne 1956.
But, being a true amateur athlete Don could not afford to take time off his day job as an insurance clerk and travel to Rome to acclimate to the heat before the race. In his unique brand of low-key style Don decided to acclimate in his parents bathroom in their Middlesex home. By turning the wall-mounted heater up to max, alongside putting a Valor stove and kettles of steaming water in the room he was able to push the temperature to above what would be expected in Rome. Thompson found that after half an hour he began to feel dizzy and concluded that this must mean he was acclimating to the heat. It wasn’t until after the Olympics that Thompson realised that he wasn’t feeling dizzy because of the heat or humidity, but rather the carbon monoxide produced by the Valor stove!
The heat acclimation paid off for Thompson when he won the 50km race walk by roughly 100 yards. Which, when you’re racing over 50km, is practically a photo finish. The race was, by all accounts, a thrilling spectacle.
(In addition, possibly the best Don Thompson anecdote is that at the age of 50, still a keen runner, he fell during the Thanet Marathon and broke his collarbone. He wanted to do his usual early morning run, but couldn’t tie his shoelaces. When his wife refused to be woken up in the morning to tie his laces for him he asked for her to tie them the night before, and he simply slept in his shoes.)
With each Olympic Games new champions appear, records get set and tears are shed. For certain the next two weeks in Pyeongchang will have its fair share of moments that go down in Olympic history.
We can all agree that was a fantastic winter olympics. Team GB earned 5 medals, which is a new record. We watched Lizzie Yarnold defend her skeleton title and we found a new hero in the form of snowboarder Billy Morgan. There have been numerous moments from Pyeongchang that have been inspirations, impressive or tear jerking.
Norway, despite being a country of only 5.2 million people, have managed to secure a record medal haul and top the medal table. Nobody can define all of the factors that helped them win on such an epic scale, one member of their team says it's down to the amount of snow they have. Makes sense to me...
There have been a huge range of athletes that have made the headlines, either for their phenomenal sporting performance, or something they’ve said / done. For me, there were two athletes that have stood out from the crowd. Firstly there’s Ester Ledecka, the Czech athlete who has become the first athlete in 90 years to win a gold in two different sports at the same Olympics. Ledecka has always loved both skiing and snowboarding, and this year was able to qualify and represent her country in both sports. She was always expected to be competitive in the snowboarding event, it was generally accepted she would be an “also ran” in the super G skiing.
While is is fairly common for athletes in sports such as swimming to be world class in multiple disciplines, don’t make the mistake of thinking this is the same. Super G skiing and slalom snowboarding are very different. As Ski Sunday commentator Ed Leigh highlights; the sports are about as different as badminton and tennis. Requiring different muscle groups, strategy and technique, it is an incredible feat to even be competitive at both sports, let alone win Olympic gold in both in a single week!
Probably the best element of this story though, is that she didn’t even own the skis she won on - they were borrowed from giant slalom gold medalist Mikaela Shiffrin!
For me, the other outstanding athlete was Pita Taufatofua. Although not challenging for the medals, he embodied the Olympic spirit during his cross-country ski event. Firstly a bit of background: He become an internet sensation in 2016 after the Rio opening ceremony, where he paraded topless and “oily”. And, despite being knocked out in the first round of the taekwondo competition he did it all with a fantastic smile on his face and his eternally positive attitude showed that it’s the taking part that counts.
After the Rio Olympics Pita turned down Hollywood deals in favour of representing his country at another sport, and another Olympics; cross-country skiing in the 2018 Winter Games. Despite only 12 weeks training, and not even having seen snow until one year ago, Pita managed to meet the qualification standards for the 15km sprint event. His aims were modest, saying he wanted to finish before they turned the lights off and avoid skiing into a tree! He achieved both of the aims and more
The Olympic spirit was out if full force during Pita’s race. Not only did he avoid skiing into any trees but he also did not come in last place. He did, however, wait at the finish line for the final athlete and the celebrated together! Fantastic stuff.