Sport in the heat: an insight into research

Severin Trösch is a sports scientist and currently works in the Performance Physiology Endurance Department at the Swiss Federal Institute of Sport Magglingen (EHSM). Within this department he is responsible for triathlon and cross-departmental at the EHSM as well as for Swiss Olympic contact for heat. Here he gives a small insight into his field of activity.

Hello Severin, which topics do you deal with in connection with sports and heat?

Basically, there are two variants in connection with heat in which actions can be performed. One is acclimatization, the other is cooling. I am concerned with the optimal application of these two areas in concrete sports on the respective competitions. The goal is the optimal application of the scientific findings to the specific requirements of different disciplines and types of competition.

Who benefits from your work?

Primary associations. However, this stopover is rather political in nature and via the associations coaches and athletes are addressed. We aim to achieve the best possible application with our work together with the athletes.

But it also happens that coaches or athletes contact me directly. In these cases they often have a specific question. This could be, for example, whether an arrival to a competition which will take place under heat conditions should take place on Friday evening or even better on Monday morning. In a first step, I try to answer the question as precisely as possible and then answer it as practically as possible but with the highest possible scientific integrity. My principle is to only recommend things which are evidence-based, unless it is the rare case that there are very good reasons to deviate from it.

What do you take as challenges or even obstacles in your work?

I see two primary difficulties:

  • One difficulty is that existing research results have certain limitations. Among other things, this fact also makes it difficult to get a good overview of what knowledge actually exists in a certain area.
  • The other difficulty is to be able to apply the existing knowledge profitably in competition. Just because something has been researched does not mean that it can be put into practice. The discrepancy between the questions in the field and the scientifically researched questions is partly, or even mostly, considerable, which makes the implementation in the field challenging.

With the annual Ironman in Hawaii and the Olympic Games in Tokyo in 2020, two major sporting events are on the agenda, where the heat will definitely be an issue. What crosses your mind?

Tokio 2020:

For Tokyo, I am directly involved in the preparations of the Swiss delegation. In this context, for example, I was also present at the triathlon test event in Japan a few weeks ago. On the one hand, we were already testing cooling measures, on the other hand, we collected data on the basis of which we hope to be able to draw profitable conclusions.

The conditions in Tokyo makes special that it is very humid in addition to heat. This comparatively high humidity makes it even more difficult to achieve sporting performance, since high humidity prevents perspiration from evaporating and perspiration itself is one of the body’s primary cooling mechanisms. To put it simply, the athletes in Tokyo expect difficult heat conditions in the coming summer.

Hawaii is as warm as Tokyo, but not as humid. Nevertheless the heat, the length of the race, blowing winds, etc. make the competition a performance measurement under extreme conditions. In my eyes, however, the wind, which is often the subject of discussion, has a more negative effect on the athletes on the bike than in connection with the heat.

In your opinion, what questions should sports science address in connection with heat in the future?

That’s a very good question (thinks long and hard). Basically, one can still research everything better and adapt it even better to practice. In my opinion, a lot of work is still required in order to have recommendations for action that are optimally adapted to the respective disciplines.

Specifically, I have two areas in mind which have already been considered, but the research situation is still highly speculative and I am personally still very skeptical. I’m not sure whether they have a decisive performance-enhancing effect in addition to optimal endurance training.

  • On the one hand, the literature speculates that there is a connection between heat and altitude training. What these two methods have in common is that they affect the blood. There is a certain interaction with this per se. It is now speculated that altitude and heat reinforce each other’s effects.
  • On the other hand, the heat is traded as a performance booster in non-heat competitions. So you can expect a performance-enhancing effect from a stay in the heat before the competition, which then takes place under less hot climatic conditions.

Thank you very much for your information Severin and good luck with your scientific work.