Strategic Cooling Approaches for Athletes in Competition

One of our favourite quotes is from a sport scientist with a national Olympic organisation.  When asking about the competitive strategy of an athlete to respond to elevated core body temperatures... and should the athlete slow their pace or speed, the response was. 

"Yes when the core temperature goes up you SHOULD compensate by lowering pace/power output - BUT that is NOT how you win GOLD medals!"
In the context of winning gold medals there are two key strategies. 

• Individual heat optimisation & Heat Acclimation
• Strategic Cooling

We have provided an overview of Heat Training and Heat Acclimation and in this article will focus on Strategic Cooling - how to cool down your body.

Strategic Cooling is simply taking various steps to cool (Active Cooling) to keep the core body temperature from rising too much. This can be as simple as splashing the body with water at the right time, optimising clothing selection, and pre-cooling before the event starts.

Awareness is the most important component of cooling. Continual monitoring helps both the coaches and athletes to understand the individual physiology and reaction to different cooling impulses.

The most efficient way to cool down your body is to not to raise the core body temperature in the first place. This is the underlying premise for strategic cooling. It is easier to take measures to keep the core temperature low than trying to recover and cool if the core body temperature is already too high. Just like dehydration, it is easier to drink often and enough than to become dehydrated and try to recover.

In overview the best strategy for optimising core body temperature, and thus performance in competition, is to plan-ahead and be aware so that the right strategic cooling approaches are used.

How to cool down your body?

Pre-cooling is an approach often employed by Olympic teams, professional teams and elite athletes. Ice vests are becoming common at sporting events and for track cycling at Velodromes, many of the teams travel with slushy machines as part of their equipment which enables the competitors to cool as much as possible before their event. 

The crucial part is 'Warming-Up' and preparing for the start of their event but at the same time, keeping the core body temperature as cool as possible. This simply means that when an athletes starts racing, they use more blood for power generation rather than blood being diverted away from the muscles and to the skin to help cool. 

The most effective cooling technique is water/sweat evaporation with airflow and wind. The process of sweating draws plasma from your body so you also need to keep hydrated. However, sweating can be supplemented by wetting/spraying your skin with water.  The evaporation of moisture on the skin is the fundamental cooling process.

What's the best time to drink water? The timing of extra water or spray also has an impact on cooling. As an athlete, when you are exposed to faster wind speed (airflow), evaporation of the moisture is more efficient and sweat dries faster. A scenario would be then during a long cycling descent where the wind dries the skin - if you wet the skin during the decent (e.g. with a water bottle poured over the body) and again at the base, then you can extend the cooling advantage and help reduce your core body temperature further. 

Another approach with regard to timing your cooling is to plan-ahead. For example, in a cycle race where there is a long ascent, this will result increased in power output, but you can plan to start cooling ahead of this climb. If you are wearing a jacket, removing this well in advance of the climb and this helps to first lower your core body temperature and helps provide a bigger power reserve (power output drops when you get hotter, so starting cooling provides allows you to sustain power output for longer).

Similarly, towards the end of a race where the physical intensity can increase, lowering the temperature in advance can help an athlete to sustain a higher output for longer.

In some sports it is possible to conserve energy such as in cycling where riders can draft behind others riders in the peloton. Part of this advantage is enabling the body to cool.

Clothing is another factor that impacts cooling in sports. In the example above, a jacket other layers of warm clothing can be removed before intense efforts to allow the body to cool earlier. Even though your perception could be that it feels cold and you may naturally want to wait until you feel warm to shed layers, the strategic approach to cooling is thinking ahead as you know you know you will get hot anyway. 

A more advanced aspect to sports clothing is the cooling ability. While the aerodynamic capabilities of clothing is already a strong focus, there is a growing awareness among elite teams and athletes that cooling also needs to be factored-in. The result is that both the aero capabilities and the cooling capabilities of sports wear need to evaluated to provide the right balance and solution for the athlete in competition. 

To summarise, the most important step in strategic cooling is awareness. With a better understanding, this enables athletes to think-ahead and to be better prepared in competition - the approaches for strategic cooling are really quite simple and logical and can help ensure you are maximising your potential with respect to cooling and power output.