Climate change is something that we all have to face and navigate as a human species. We can only hope that we are able to make progress towards reducing our burden on the planet’s global temperature, and therefore climate patterns, by reducing our output of carbon emissions into the atmosphere. However, making the changes necessary to delay or slow the warming of the planet will take decades to realize, and in the meantime, we will all be dealing with some of the ramifications of hotter average global temperatures and the impact that this has on global climate patterns. Endurance athletes are a unique group of people that can be impacted by climate change in various ways, and it goes beyond the obvious of having to train and race in warmer weather more frequently. Herein, I discuss some areas of concern for endurance athletes moving forward, and how to address them, while navigating climate change.
Climate Change and Hotter Temperatures
This one is likely the most obvious. As global temperatures rise, endurance athletes will likely spend more of their time training and racing in warmer weather (1). However, it is the more extreme temperatures that hit during summer months that can be the most concerning to endurance athletes and race event organizers. Many races around the globe each year are experiencing ‘record heat’ on the day of their event. This is something endurance athletes will, therefore, need to be more diligently prepared for through proper training and heat acclimation.
I have written on the topic of heat previously, and it is worth reading as it takes a deep dive into the physiology of exercising in the heat as well as ways in which to acclimate to the heat to improve performance or to prepare for competition in a hot environment. Acclimating to the heat is important for any athlete that is planning on racing in a hot environment so as to reduce the impact that the heat has on their performance and to reduce the likelihood of heat-related illness. The importance of this has never been higher with many races that endurance athletes partake in occurring during summer months and with an increased possibility of extreme heat on race day.
Climate Change and Air Pollution
A changing climate makes wildfires more prevalent, especially during hotter and dryer summer months (1). Wildfires can dramatically reduce overall air quality, which can be harmful to endurance athletes if they live and train, or race, in an area that is prone to experiencing these wildfires and reduced air quality. Endurance athletes can dsubstantially increase their breathing frequency for prolonged periods of time during training, and this can increase the amount of smoke pollutants that get into and damage the lungs if the air quality is sufficiently poor due to a wildfire. It is, therefore, important for endurance athletes that live in these areas to be aware of ongoing wildfires nearby and the current air quality on days they plan to train outdoors. If the air quality index (AQI) is too high, it is worth taking training indoors, if possible, or wearing a well-fitting N95 mask to reduce the inhalation of smoke pollutants. Typically, race event organizers will cancel or postpone events if the AQI on race day is too high as the risk is too great.
Climate Change and Tick-Borne Illness
As the climate changes and certain areas become warmer and wetter, the population of ticks is spreading to larger swaths of geographical areas where they were previously not commonly found (1). Typically ticks are most commonly a concern for endurance athletes that exercise outdoors in heavily wooded or grassy areas, including hikers, mountain bikers, and trail runners (1). Tick bites can spread Lyme disease to humans, which can have a potentially devastating effect on overall health and performance. Therefore, endurance athletes that are exercising in areas where ticks might be present should be careful to protect themselves from possible tick exposure.
For athletes that are exercising outdoors in wooded or grassy areas, the following precautions can be followed to reduce the chances of tick exposure (1):
Wear long-sleeved shirts, long pants, and tall socks while exercising, if possible
Treat clothing or gear with tick repellant
Spray skin-safe tick repellant on exposed skin while exercising
Check clothing and body for ticks after exercise; a tick must be embedded for 48-72 hours to transmit Lyme disease
Climate change has impacts on a global scale. However, different groups of people may be impacted differently depending on their geographical location and the activities they partake in. For endurance athletes, there are a few important areas of concern to be aware of moving forwards, including increasingly hotter temperatures, increased possibility of wildfires and poor air quality, and increased risk of exposure to tick-born illness when exercising outdoors. Each of these areas, however, can be addressed in many ways to reduce the overall risk of injury or illness when training or racing as an endurance athlete in a changing climate.
Nowak AS, Kennelley GE, Krabak BJ, Roberts WO, Tenforde KM, Tenforde AS. Endurance Athletes and Climate Change. The Journal of Climate Change and Health. 2022 Feb 1:100118.
Happy training and racing!
-Ryan Eckert, MS, CSCS
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