Last month I was supporting Bex run a half marathon on one of the hottest days of the year. After seeing her run past at the 12 mile mark I was walking to the finish area to meet her. It was roasting hot and a lot of runners were clearly beginning to struggle. I saw a group of people congregating around a collapsed runner so went over to help. I found the runner was unconscious and critically unwell with hyperthermia. While waiting for the ambulance to arrive I did all I could in the circumstances and was relieved there had been someone there to offer medical assistance. I won’t go into more detail about the case on the blog as I don’t feel it’s appropriate, but what I can say is the incident had a profound impact on me for several weeks afterwards and I still find myself thinking about it now.
Running has become such a popular sport with more people signing up for races and events than ever before. What we all need to remember, myself included, is that you need to respect the distance and your own limitations. It’s frustrating when you don’t feel 100% on race day or the weather conditions aren’t what you were expecting, but if this happens, you need to adapt and reset your expectations. Most of us will get away with it, but if you’re one of the few that doesn’t, it could be life-threatening. And really, is that worth it?
Following my experience I thought it would be worth talking a little about heat stroke and hyperthermia, how you can avoid them, and what to do if you come across someone in trouble.
What is heat stroke or hyperthermia?
Heatstroke develops when the body is unable to get rid of the excess heat that’s being produced. Excess heat production can be caused for many reasons, including high environmental temperature, high humidity, vigorous exercise, dehydration, lack of wind and heat retaining clothing. It’s easy to see how racing on a hot day is risky for heatstroke as you may be contending with all these factors at once!
If your core temperature rises and the body is unable to bring it down, (a condition called hyperthermia), irreversible damage to the brain, kidneys, liver, and adrenal glands and can occur, and sometimes even death.
Given how serious the consequences are, it’s worth thinking about how to avoid heatstroke and how to help someone in trouble.
What are the signs of heatstroke?
Early signs of heatstroke include:
- headache, nausea, dizziness, increased breathing rate and confusion
- hallucinations, muscle twitching, seizure and incontinence
- unconsciousness/ coma and small pin- point pupils
What to do if you find someone in trouble
If you’re not medically trained it can be hard to tell how unwell someone is. I’d recommend that everyone should attend a Basic Life Support course to give them confidence in this type of situation, but if you’re in doubt it’s always best to call for help. That could be getting the attention of the course medics or St John’s Ambulance if you’re at a race, or ringing 999 if you’re really worried.
In the meantime there are lots of simple things you can do to help. Here are some suggestions:
- Move the runner into a shaded area if possible
- If they are conscious lay the runner flat and raise their legs. If they are not responding to you, place them in the recovery position and immediately call 999.
- Remove their clothing (obviously retaining modesty where appropriate), and spray them with tepid water and fan them.
- Do not use ice packs/ cold water/ or blow cold air on them. This could make it worse.
- If conscious, try and encourage them to take sips of fluid.
How to avoid heatstroke when exercising in the heat
There are plenty of simple things you can do to avoid heatstroke. Ensure that you wear loose, light clothing, and preferably in white. Go for natural materials over synthetic ones. Try and have regular sips of fluids and if possible, spray yourself with tepid water (thank goodness for the kind souls who come out with their hosepipes on race day!).
It’s recommended that if the temperature is over 28oC an endurance race should be cancelled. I’m not sure how often this happens in reality, but it may be worth considering if you want to take part in a race if the temperature is higher than this.
It is possible to acclimatise your body to exercise in extreme conditions. I don’t know a huge amount about this, (perhaps it could be another blog post once I’ve done some more research?) but the general principle is to train excessively in warmer conditions, so either in a hot room or sauna or in an impermeable tracksuit. I wouldn’t try this unless you’ve got expert guidance as you could end up giving yourself heatstroke if you’re not careful!
On reflection, I think I’ve suffered from heatstroke quite a few times. I remember feeling really unwell towards the end of Barcelona Marathon- I was nauseous and dizzy and couldn’t stand up at the end. My experience at the half marathon has taught me to listen to my body. Nothing is more important than your health, not even a shiny new PB.
The Santa Rosa Marathon in a few months is likely to be warm despite starting at 6am, so I’m going to listen to my own advice and listen to my body.
Have you ever suffered from heatstroke? What precautions do you take when exercising in the heat? Do you think this post will change your behaviour?