The Thermal Outdoor Environment in Track and Field–Best Practices Recommendations for Minimizing Risks

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Track and field in the United States is a spring sport, which usually means athletes experience the associated late-spring heat temperatures. The 2019 National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Outdoor Track and Field Championship was held at Mike A. Myers Stadium in Austin, TX, from June 5 – June 8, 2019 (Figures 1 – 3). This track meet ran from 8 am – 10 pm for each of the four days of competition. Track and field officials, volunteers, parents, and athletes were exposed to high thermal conditions during the days of competition, especially during the middle part of the day. Austin averages 111 days a year when the temperature ranges between 95 – 104 degrees Fahrenheit, with 16 of those days above 100 degrees Fahrenheit (24,25). The humidity in Austin during the month of June peaks at 80 percent in the morning and drops to 50 percent by mid-afternoon (24,25). When temperatures get close to and exceed 80 degrees Fahrenheit, especially if the relative humidity is greater than or equal to 50 percent humidity, it can hinder the aerobic and sprint performance of these athletes (1,3,4,5,7,14). There is very little research on the environment in which track meets occur during the spring and summer months. In the summer, the artificial track surface can reach temperatures as high as 147 degrees Fahrenheit. The temperature of the track surface may not seem like a significant problem for a sprinter running the 100-m race, but it becomes significant for those running for longer periods, such as the 5,000- m or 10,000-m races.

The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) World Championships in Doha, Qatar, hosted a marathon that had to start at midnight because the daily temperatures were around 100 degrees Fahrenheit (9,17). The Women’s World Cup in 2019 saw temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit in France (17). The 2016 Olympic Marathon Trials saw runners struggling with the heat (17). The 2020 Olympics in Tokyo was predicted to be one of the hottest on record (6,17,21). The purpose of this article is to help disseminate information on the thermal environment during track meets, risk management, and thermal reducing approaches coaches, athletes, and sports medicine personnel can employ for improved athletic performance in a hot environment. The term “thermal” will be defined as caused by outside environmental temperature.