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Utah coaches, trainers have game plan to beat the blistering heat

SALT LAKE CITY — The summer break might not be over, but high school athletes are already practicing through the blistering heat, and their coaches have game plans in place to keep them safe from dehydration.

"We're out here working — we work a lot. We work harder than a lot of teams do. We pride ourselves on that. And we pride ourselves on taking care of each other, especially coming from our coaches and our athletic trainer to make sure we're hydrated and make sure we're at the best we can be," said Jaxsen Miner, an incoming senior on the Highland High School football team.

"We try to train in the day, when it is hot, because we're gonna play in the heat. Our first game is down in St. George, Aug. 16, and it's gonna be a lot warmer down there than it is up here," coach Brody Benson explained.

Niela Lehauli fills water bottles during football practice at Highland High School in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2019.
Niela Lehauli fills water bottles during football practice at Highland High School in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2019.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

On Tuesday morning, the team practiced for 2 ½ hours as the sun beat down. Around the school grounds, cheerleaders also practiced their routines, tennis players sparred and soccer players hit the turf.

Mitchell McKay, head athletic trainer for Highland, is tasked with keeping the kids safe from heat-related illnesses and helping them with any injuries. He also does outreach for Intermountain Healthcare's Orthopedic Specialty Hospital.

Ahead of the week's practices, McKay and the school's coaches met Monday to come up with a game plan to battle the heat. He said anytime temperatures are expected to reach 85 degrees or higher, they become concerned about players' safety.

On Tuesday, a large fan was placed off-field near the football players, and injured players continuously carried water onto the field for their teammates.

"As soon as you're thirsty, you're already dehydrated. That's the one thing we're trying to teach them," McKay said.

An ice tub was set up in the shade in case a student needed a rapid, full-body cooling. After the morning session, the footballers were expected to return to the field a few hours later to continue practicing.

Fetz Moors pours ice into an ice bath after football practice at Highland High School in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2019. The ice bath is kept by the field during practice in case a player needs an emergency cool down, but players also use it to s
Fetz Moors pours ice into an ice bath after football practice at Highland High School in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2019. The ice bath is kept by the field during practice in case a player needs an emergency cool down, but players also use it to sooth muscles and cool off after practice.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

During the afternoon sessions, they would have scheduled breaks, where they could cool down under canopies.

McKay said a large part of his job is "educating them."

"So last night, when we were done with our second practice in the afternoon, it's, 'OK guys, you gotta start hydrating now. Eat properly all the way up to practice the next day,'" he explained.

Some of the players don't like eating breakfast because it makes them ill as they play in the morning, so coaches tell them they have to eat lunch or else they will probably end up cooling down in the ice tub after overeating.

McKay keeps his eyes peeled during the practice and if a player starts vomiting, "I'll say, 'OK, what did you have for breakfast?" he said.

Sometimes, they'll tell him they "haven't really eaten since yesterday," according to McKay. The school has a "wide population" of students who don't have a lot to eat in their homes, and those who are more well-off.

To help with that issue, Highland has a deal with some grocery stores around the area that will donate food close to expiration dates to a pantry at the school.

A fan is pictured on the sideline during football practice at Highland High School in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2019.
A fan is pictured on the sideline during football practice at Highland High School in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2019.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Highland hasn't had any severe cases of heat stroke or heat exhaustion this year because the coaches and teammates do their best to stay hydrated and become acclimatized to the heat.

Benson said they begin heat acclimatization when school gets out for the summer, wearing a short-sleeved T-shirt and another shirt over it, as well as a hat to "kind of trap that heat while we're working out inside." And then they progress throughout summer months into long-sleeved shirts with short-sleeves over the top, with a baseball hat or stocking cap. It's all to get the kids used to being in the equipment, Benson said.

"We learned this program, we've had it implemented for about 11 years," he said, adding that they learned about heat acclimatization from the University of Wisconsin and haven't seen a heat-related illness since.

McKay said he is more concerned about the safety of visiting teams because he doesn't know if they have the same procedures to protect them from the heat.

The advice he gives applies to anyone doing physical activity under the sun, not just student athletes, McKay said.

"So the thing is, a lot of people think they can be that weekend warrior and be like, 'Oh, I feel fine, when I'm starting my exercise.' So I mean, we're talking specifically about high school athletes, but I could have a friend that decides to go and run 6 miles for the first time in two weeks and they didn't have the proper nutrition or hydration going into that, and then they're going to have those signs of dehydration and going into heat stroke."

He tells student athletes and others they need to be hydrated and have food in them for the whole 24 hours before a workout. He advises students to eat spaghetti noodles because the energy lasts longer than many other carbs.

"People just need to be aware of it because once you get to that point where you're feeling dizzy or you feel like you want to throw up, it's already too late, you're already too dehydrated."

When students on the field do vomit, McKay checks their weight that day and the next day to make sure they've recovered their water weight.

As for students in the other sports, "They care about everyone the same, and everyone gets the same amount of attention that they can," Miner said.

"Hydration is one of the most important things here. We have to be able to, of course, be the best. That's what's expected out of us."