Dr Yannis Pitsiladis is a sport scientist who has helped a number of athletes achieve peak performance in heat and humidity.
If you’re competing in an outdoor sport, you should consider incorporating some acclimatisation techniques to your Olympic training programme.
Check out the IOC Working Group’s advice on how you can prepare to beat the heat at Tokyo 2020, and look out for our webinar in January.
I’m a sport scientist specialising in genetics and the environment, and am particularly interested in the make-up of an elite athlete. My work has explored the different factors, from environmental to socioeconomic, which can impact athletic performance.
I have been working with the IOC Medical and Scientific Commission for the last five years, and have been part of the IOC Adverse Weather Impact Expert Working Group since it was established around two years ago. It’s a good, effective Working Group with a lot of expertise, and our work is now beginning to make an impact.
ON THAT DAY, IT WASN’T THE BEST ATHLETES WHO WON, BUT THE BEST PREPARED ATHLETES.
DR YANNIS PITSILADIS
Running with the Ethiopians
For many years I’ve been interested in running among African tribes, and in countries like Kenya and Ethiopia, where often the closest thing you get to technology is the stopwatch.
I remember watching the 2007 World Cross-Country Championships in Mombasa (Kenya), where it was over 30 degrees temperature and more than 90 per cent humidity – and athletes were dropping like flies. On that day, it wasn’t the best athletes who won, but the best prepared athletes. It was the African athletes who acclimatised in the weeks and months before the race who performed best, and those who didn’t struggled.
After that, I was invited to Ethiopia to help athletes in the lead-up to the 2007 World Athletics Championships in Osaka (Japan), and the Olympic Games Beijing 2008, where similar, hot summer conditions were expected. We called it the “Going for Gold” project.
Where these runners train in Africa, it’s cold; it’s not the hot weather that you might expect. It’s up to 3,000m in altitude, and the athletes are wearing hoodies and gloves while they run. So we had to get these athlete to acclimatise to the hot conditions.
This didn’t mean getting to the host city weeks in advance. Ethiopian athletes generally don’t like to stay in hotels, and most of them preferred to stay right up until the last moment in Ethiopia with their families. So instead, what we did was convert a room of each athlete’s home into a heat chamber.
All we needed was a heater and a kettle, and the athlete would gradually build up time and distance running in that heat over a period of weeks. The result? Our athletes, Kenenisa Bekele and Sileshi Sihine, won gold and silver in the 10,000m in both Osaka and Beijing.
Incorporating these methods into your training
Of course, this was not the sole reason they won those medals – they were brilliant athletes – but it highlights the benefits you can get when you do this, and what can happen if you don’t (Kenenisa dropped out of the race when favourite for the cross-country world title in Mombasa).
It’s not a standalone technique, but it should be incorporated as a part of your training. And the same principles can be applied to all sorts of conditions, whether that’s summer or winter, heat or rain.
Most athletes, despite these messages, do not acclimatise. The Ethiopian national coaches, for example, were initially resistant to it, because they were worried about overtraining and experimenting with new technology.
Also, you can’t prepare two athletes the same way. [Ethiopian long-distance great] Haile Gebreselassie used to sweat 3.6 litres per hour for example, compared to Bekele who would sweat one litre per hour. Athletes have different bodies and different needs, and you should incorporate the amount of acclimatisation that works for you.
A properly designed and applied acclimatisation programme decreases the risk of heat-related illnesses and improves performance. It lowers heart rate, lowers core temperature and lowers sweat concentration. And it will help you be prepared to succeed in extreme environments with an emphasis on heat.
A sports-inclusive approach
Importantly, we want this to be all-inclusive regarding outdoor sports, male and female. If you participate in an outdoor sport, then these tips will apply – whether you’re a long-distance runner, a cyclist, a triathlete, a footballer or a rugby player.
The IOC Working Group have already developed some protocols on this topic, and I will be participating in a webinar for the Athlete365 Community in December to provide a greater level of detail and answer any questions you may have. I hope to see you there.
A PROPERLY DESIGNED AND APPLIED ACCLIMATISATION PROGRAMME DECREASES THE RISK OF HEAT-RELATED ILLNESSES AND IMPROVES PERFORMANCE.
DR YANNIS PITSILADIS