FINA Taking It To The Edge - Part 3

FINA Taking It To The Edge – Part 3

This article is a continuation of Part 1 and Part 2 in this series.

When FINA’s Medical Delegate looked upon the swimmers lining up at the 25 km race at the 2011 FINA World Swimming Championships, he was asked about the dangers of swimming in 31°C. He answered while standing in an air-conditioned tent near the start, “There is less risk under these conditions than other athletes in other situations, like in the 10 km.”

What? 5-6 hours in 31°C under a scorching sun?

Those conditions have risk all over it – and the athletes’ performances proved it. We were shocked to hear the assessment of the situation by the leading voice of FINA’s Sports Medicine Committee.

While we respect the doctor’s knowledge of hyperthermia and heat stress that can be caused by extreme conditions on land, we respectfully and emphatically disagree that swimmers in the water are in any less dangerous situation than triathletes, marathon runners or cyclists on land.

Observers point out that Hawaiian Ironman athletes compete for significantly larger cash prizes as they run and cycle in the hot lava fields on the Big Island of Hawaii. We have been there and done triathlons. In the tropical heat and humid, these races are, undoubtedly, brutal. Running through a lava field is like running in an outside oven. Cycling in the desert into the famous Santa Ana winds of Southern California is like peddling into a blasting furnace. Competing in ultra-marathon runs under extreme conditions is similarly tough.

But there are very important and fundamental differences between marathon swimmers who compete in FINA-sanctioned races and those endurance athletes who compete in triathlons, running marathons and cycling races under extreme conditions around the world. Any observer of these land-based endurance events know that these land-based athletes and their situation and behaviors differ in any number of ways from marathon swimmers:

1. Land-based athletes can cool themselves.
They pour cold water on their head; they wear ice packs; they stopped under the shade; they sit down or stretch. Even if a warm wind is blowing, when they pour water on themselves, the skin is cooled somewhat through evaporation. Marathon swimmers do not have this opportunity. They compete in an environment that is constantly warm. They do not pour cool water on themselves; they do not put ice packs under their swim caps or in their swimsuits. They do not stop. There is no practical way to cool themselves other than to stop and quit the race.

2. Land-based athletes shade themselves with sun visors or hats.
In contrast, marathon swimmers wear rubber or silicon caps on their heads. While some men remove their caps (note: swim caps are mandatory for all athletes at the start of the race), many athletes keep their swim caps on their head for the entire race. Swimmers do not wear white; in fact, the elite athletes do not even use white-colored zinc oxide on their backs or legs during a race. Imagine a runner, triathlete or cyclist who competed with a tight-fitting rubber cap on their head during a triathlon or marathon run…that scenario simply does not work.

3. Land-based athletes adequately hydrate.
Watch a marathon run or triathlon in warm conditions. The runners and triathletes hydrate over the entire race, taking in liquids over the course of a 100 meters and constantly sucking on their water bottles. In contrast, the marathon swimmers take quick sips under 5 seconds as they pass through a single feeding station (in a loop course) or every 15-30 minutes if they have an escort boat. Of course, it is the decision of the athlete and their coach how often they hydrate, but hydration is a much more complex action in the water during a marathon swim than it is during a marathon run or triathlon on land.

4. Land-based athletes can wear reflective clothing.
They wear white or light-colored, loose-fitting jerseys that protect the skin when the sun is beating down on them. In contrast, marathon swimmers wear tight-fitting dark swimsuits as they swim horizontally in the water, fully exposing their backs and legs to solar radiation. While the land-based athletes dress to minimize the effects of heat, the marathon swimmers do the exact opposite (i.e., wear black or dark blue, tight-fitting swimsuits that trap body heat).

5. Land-based athletes train for extreme conditions.
Runners and triathletes who know they will compete in a ultra-marathon in the desert or the Ironman in Hawaii adequately prepare themselves for these extreme conditions. They acclimate over a period of time as they concentrate on preparing themselves physiologically. In contrast, the elite marathon swimmers usually (and almost exclusively) train in a pool where the water temperature is constantly comfortable. If they do train in the open water, they train in open bodies of water that do not have the extreme warm conditions. That is, marathon swimmers most likely do not acclimate well (or well enough) for extremely warm-water conditions. Their bodies are not adequately prepared for 31°C. While it is ultimately the responsibility of the athletes to prepare for such conditions, they are also competing in cold-water conditions throughout the year. The human body needs much more time to adapt to extreme conditions.

6. Land-based athletes are closer to emergency care.
The warning signs of heat stroke (red, hot, and dry skin without sweating), rapid/strong pulse, throbbing headache, dizziness, nausea, confusion) is much easier to see on land than in the water. Volunteers, officials and safety personnel know instinctively when a land-based athlete is having problems. It is more difficult to assess the situation in the water, especially for the untrained eye. So not only are the athletes in the water apt to receive care in later stages of heat stress than land-based athletes, but they are also in an environment where they must first be pulled from the water, taken to shore, and then driven to emergency help.

7. Swimmers have less experience with heat exhaustion and heat stroke.
Athletes – even swimmers – know when their bodies are overheating on land. They sweat profusely, their skin is flushed, their heart rate increases. They know instinctively to slow down or stop, get some water and get out of the sun. This happens as a child playing around in summer and it happens as an adult overdoing it on a hot day. But most swimmers have little or no experience with these feelings during competition. They will not know instinctively what is happening, especially in a competitive situation. With their head down, alone with their thoughts, they are trained to keep on going. The danger is that unconsciousness can happen so quickly – and in the water, this is potentially deadly.

Experienced individuals more knowledgeable than us know that there is a difference of “environmental dissipation capacity” between swimmers and land-based athletes. Ultra-marathon runner, triathlete and marathon swimmer Bruckner Chase explains, “Athletes on both land and water occasionally compete in an environment that is constantly warm. The difference lies in the application of the environmental dissipation capacity, and the athlete’s ability to dissipate heat through a number of means from conduction to evaporative cooling to preventing radiant heat gain.”

In the Part 2 of this series, it was mentioned that safety issues have plagued the last four FINA World Swimming Championships. This editorial staff has specific experience in these championships. In both 2005 and 2011, they cradled the head of a distressed 25 km athlete in their arms. They saw the pleading eyes of an athlete reaching out for help. No words, no body language, just human-to-human eye contact.

These athletes were not looking for help to win a race. They were not asking for help to get a medal. They were asking for help…to live another day.

To cradle the head of a distressed athlete in one’s arms enables one to profoundly understand how important safety is.

So we end by asking, Does FINA’s new rules regarding maximum water temperature aid in the safety of a race? If not, then athletes and coaches should lobby for a change in these rules. If FINA believes these new rules are conducive to ensuring safe competitions, then what do the athletes believe who are the ones who must face these conditions?

Comments are always welcomed.

FINA Taking It To The Edge – Part 1 is here.

FINA Taking It To The Edge – Part 2 is here.

Why 31°C FINA? – Part 4 is here

USA Triathlon Fatality Incidents Study is here.

New South Wales Maximum Water Temperature Rules are here.

Copyright © 2012 by Open Water Source
Steven Munatones