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Keeping student athletes safe during summer workouts

June 05, 2014

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Rising temperatures and school team summer workouts can be a deadly mix if precautions aren’t in place to prevent potentially fatal exercise-related complications.

Since 2000, nearly two-dozen college football players have collapsed and died during conditioning workouts, many because they were pushed too hard during the first few days.

New guidelines aim to keep young athletes safe by recommending that conditioning workouts work up to maximum intensity, that exercise not be used as punishment, and that coaches be trained in health and safety issues which include knowing the warning signs and how to treat exercise-related complications.

Knowing the coaching staff is reasonable and knowledgeable should put anxious parents at ease, says Tracy Ray, MD, Director of Primary Care Sports Medicine for Duke Orthopaedics.

“There should be no issues if the coaches demonstrate common sense, if there is water available and the kids take frequent breaks,” Ray says. “It’s like leaving your kid at the swimming pool. If a lifeguard is present, you assume that lifeguard will jump in the pool and save your child if needed. There has to be a level of trust with the people coaching your student athlete as well.”

At the same time, it’s important for young athletes to know the warning signs and how to react to what their bodies are telling them.

“All athletes need to push themselves in order to increase their endurance and strength,” Ray says. “When you go beyond what you’re capable of, you have to stop.  Exercise-related complications don’t sneak up on you. They occur when you’re working hard and you’re feeling bad but continue to press through.”

Dizziness, nausea, chest pain, the inability to think straight, and an overall sense of doom are the body’s way of saying, stop, get to a cool place and get a drink, he says.

Problems occur when athletes think asking for a break is a sign of weakness. “It just means you’re not acclimated to the heat, or your level of fitness isn’t the same as everybody else. It could be you just didn’t get enough rest last night or didn’t hydrate enough beforehand.”

Athletes can get their bodies used to the heat by running, biking or even mowing the lawn on hot days. “A kid can’t go from playing X-box in the air conditioning all day to working out in the heat,” Ray says. 

They should also build up their fluid intake prior to the start of regular workouts. “It’s not enough to take breaks during the workouts,” he says. “You’ve got to drink plenty of water and sports drinks ahead of time.” Even carbonated sugary drinks are better than nothing.

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