by Dr. Michael Glassman, DPT
In recent years there have been growing concerns for football players staying safe on the field, and many people brush it off saying this generation just needs to toughen up. Maybe that’s true, or maybe we just haven’t been focusing on the facts.
Between 1997 and 2005, the number of heat-related sports injuries increased 133% and youth athletes accounted for almost 48% of that. Between 2005 and 2009 alone, there were more heat stroke deaths than any other five-year period! These numbers may look scary, but they are 100% survivable when you recognize the signs of heat stroke. More importantly, they are preventable when you take action to assure your players are staying hydrated and keeping cool on the field.
Based on the following chart, here are some recommendations on football practice modifications during hot/ humid weather. These strategies I have learned through personal experience playing in Pop Warner, high school, and college football.
1: Change practice to the coolest part of the day. Lag time from the sun causes the hottest part of the day to peak around 3:00 pm, and taper down for the next few hours. With this being said, practices should start no earlier than 5:00 pm, when the temperature has cooled.
2 & 3: Frequent Rest Breaks and Modifying the Amount of Equipment Worn Based on the Environment. Wearing all your gear during practice can cause your body to overheat, so it is important to remove your gear during rest periods. In college, my team had two 10-15 minute rest breaks during practice. During those times, we sat in the shade and took our shoulder pads & helmets off to help cool our bodies. Football players are especially susceptible to overheating due to having extra layers of pads on; by taking these breaks we were able to cool down before getting back on the field.
4: Access to fluids. Everybody knows to stay hydrated, but not many people know the appropriate amount of water they are supposed to drink. The popular belief that you need 8 glasses with 8 oz of water a day may not be true for everyone. The general rule that athletes should follow is to drink 16-20 oz of water at least 1 hour before practice, then continue to drink at least 6-12 oz every 10-15 minutes. Once practice is over, you should drink a minimum of 16-24 oz to help replenish what your body has lost.
5: Individualized Hydration Protocols: While every player, no matter how big or small, needs to stay hydrated, bigger players are just going to need more. It’s simple physics – more size requires more energy expenditure. At the high school and college levels, size and position directly correlate to one another. Offensive and defensive linemen are the bigger players, so they are going to need more fluids. With that being said, it is important to note that offensive and defensive linemen do not cover as much ground as skill positions do. Since skill players (running backs, receivers, quarterbacks, and defensive backs) are doing a lot of running at top speeds over longer distances, they need to replenish water lost more often.
6: Ensure Adequate Fitness Levels and Heat Acclimatization: Adapting to the heat can be beneficial to both safety and performance. The best approach to practice heat acclimatization is by using a gradual exposure technique to heat and time spent on the field. To become acclimated to the heat, the first week of practices should be single-practices lasting no longer than 2 hours, with athletes wearing helmets only. From there, they can start practicing in full equipment and even have double sessions. What is important to remember is never having consecutive double-session days and each double-session must have a break of at least 3 hours with the total session lasting no longer than 5 hours.
These changes can help improve performance and prevent exhaustion and heat illness while on the field. If you don’t let your body acclimate to the heat and equipment, then it can have an impact on your performance. By not recovering fully between plays you will be left fatigued and lacking focus during drills and games.
By implementing each of these changes and strategies into preseason practices, you can reduce the risk of any heat-related injury and keep players safe, on the field, and ready for the season.
Dr. Michael Glassman, DPT has worked with Performance Physical Therapy since 2017 at the Pawtucket location. He has a Bachelor Degree in Physical Education with a Concentration in Exercise Science from Bridgewater State University and a Doctorate of Physical Therapy from MCPHS University. At MCPHS, he received the Capstone Award of Excellence. Dr. Glassman is also a member of the American Physical Therapy Association and he has studied the effects of standing desks versus traditional sitting desks in the office worker population.
A former college football player, Dr. Glassman first experienced physical therapy in 2009 as a patient. After suffering an ACL tear, he successfully returned to play three years of college football and he remains active today. He now strives to recreate his success with physical therapy for all his patients. He has expertise in sports injuries, orthopedics, post-operative rehabilitation, and ergonomics.