Action for Athens: Turn Up The Heat!

The environmental conditions this summer at the Olympics and Paralympics in Athens Greece will be extreme. But after PacificSport Victoria’s Action for Athens (A4A) conference, coaches and athletes may be able to turn the intense heat and pollution of Athens into an advantage.  The A4A event was held for Canadian athletes and coaches this past February in Victoria. The goal was to ensure Canadian Sport had access to critical and cutting edge knowledge, strategies and technologies for performance enhancement in Athens. Scientific and medical experts from across the country converged to share their knowledge and ideas regarding extreme environments and sport with coaches, sport scientists and sport administrators. 

The list of expert presenters included Dr. Tom McLellan from Defense Research and Development, Canada, Dr. Lawrence Spriet, The University of Guelph, Dr. Stephen Cheung, Dalhousie University, Dr. David Smith, The University of Calgary, Dr. Howard Wenger, The University of Victoria, Dr. Don Mackenzie, The University of BC, Dr. Richard Backus, The University of Victoria and myself from PacificSport Canadian Sport Centre Victoria. National Training Centre coaches also presented their plans for Athens and participated in panel discussions including Jim Fowlie (Swimming), Brian Richardson (Rowing), Yuri Kasherin (Cycling) and Paul Regensberg (Triathlon) This level of expertise represented the best in the world and the presentations were truly at gold medal standard.

The innovation camp started with an overview of the environmental conditions expected in Athens and then shifted to strategies to best deal with these concerns. Heat; acclimatization; pre- and post cooling methods; hydration; nutrition; travel-lag and pollution were just some of the issues discussed on day one. Day two included presentations by a number of coaches.  The coaches provided an overview of training plans and concerns and challenges for athletes competing in the upcoming Athens Olympics.

The conference provided a valuable opportunity for athletes, coaches and sport scientists to interact and engage on key issues surrounding the upcoming Olympics in Greece. Look for our Canadian athletes to use the environmental extremes to their advantage and turn up the heat in Athens!

Highlights from the A4A Conference

Dr. Gordon Sleivert on Heat Acclimation:

  • In Athens temperature will range from 32-40C thus decreasing the amount of dry convective heat transfer. The temperature gradient between the skin and the surrounding environment will approach zero so there will be increased reliance on sweat evaporation as a method of heat loss. Body temperature will continue to rise and will limit performance.Thus you cannot exercise as long.
  • Exercising in the heat allows for the body to acclimatize. Initially there will be peripheral adaptations at the level of the sweat glands.
  • Eventually the changes will occur at the level of the central nervous system (CNS) and sweating will begin at a lower core temperature.
  • For example, unacclimatized individuals may reach a core temperature of 40C after one hour of exercise in a hot humid environment. But after 11 exposures they will have a final core temperature of 39C.

How do you become heat acclimated?

  • 10 days of heat acclimatization increases the ability to store heat due to the lowering of resting core temperature, thereby increasing the capability to store heat.
  • You need a warm climate which you can simulate artificially using sweat clothing (creates a hot wet micro-environment close to the skin surface) has some benefits but not as good as the real thing
  • Can use the FIT principle (frequency, intensity and time) in a warm environment 90 minutes per day light intensity exercise (40 –50% VO2max) to increase core temperature to 39C. Do this for at least four days.

Don McKenzie (M.D., Ph.D, Allan McGavin Sports Medicine Centre UBC) on Pollution in Athens:

  • Athens is a 3rd world evolving country with a uniform density of pollution everywherein both air and water.
  • Sulfur Dioxide is found in the air. It tends to irritate eyes and mucus membranes and cause breathing difficulties.It can also provoke asthma attacks when inhaled.
  • Nitrogen Dioxide is a major role in ground level ozone that is produced by road transportation (47%), and has both acute and chronic effects on health. Some of the health effects include inflammation of the airways, negative effect on lung function and an increased allergy response.
  • Ozone is an unstable blue gas with a characteristic odor present after a lightning strike. It is not created by humans, rather it is generated by the combination of Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and Sulfur Dioxide (SO2) and sunlight. Athens regularly receives 11 hours of sunlight, and is generally dry with an average temperature of 39 C in the summer months. These are ideal conditions for generating excess amounts of ozone that can be bothersome to athletes when high concentrates are present in the air. It mainly effects the delicate tissues of the body (eyes, nose and lungs).
  • Particulate matter PM 10 is related to death from cardiac disease. This rises mainly from combustion associated with road transportation. The diameter of the particles is less than 10 microns, and when inhaled they can penetrate the larynx. It may effect both the respiratory and cardiovascular systems. It is important to be aware of sensitive subpopulations: asthmatics, people with allergies, and people with reactive airway diseases. Increased dose response variables equals increased asthmatic athletes. Symptoms include: shortness of breath, coughing, headaches, light headedness.

Effects Pollution on Performance:

  • Decrease in pulmonary function and exercise performance in athletes exposed to smog that is primarily due to Ozone and possibly carbon monoxide. However, this has not been tested in elite athletes.

Suggestions for dealing with pollution:

  • In Athens, don’t run next to the side of the road in order to avoid carbon monoxide (produced from incomplete combustion of fossil fuels).
  • If the sun precipitates the problems, train early in the day or evening.
  • Try to avoid congested streets, rush hour traffic and being outside or exercising mid-day when there is the highest concentrations of ozone are in the air.
  • Asthmatics may require an increased dose of their normal medications or they may require different medications to deal with pollution in order to control their condition.

Get permission before going to Athens; as an athlete you need to prove that you need a beta-agonist or cortical-steroids by showing that the airway is affected by pollution. The required form is on the IOC website.

Gord Slievert is the Director of Sport Science and Medicine PacificSport Canadian Sport Centre Victoria.

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