Top 5 Ways to Avoid Overheating When Playing Sports

Heather Logue Fact Checked
Woman in fun outfit playing tennis in the hot sun
© EASY 2 SHOOT / Stocksy United

Though they’re popular all year long, there’s something about late summer and early fall that screams — SPORTS! It could be because the city’s soccer fields and football stadiums are suddenly overflowing with players and their impassioned fans, or because folks are trying to pack in as many hikes as possible before the cooler weather hits.

Whatever the reason, since there is still more warm weather in store, it’s an important time to understand how dangerous overheating while exercising can be — and how to avoid it.

Why do bodies overheat?

Bodies like to be at a consistent temperature, which means that when they get too hot, they’ll do their best to get back to the healthy range they prefer — with sweating as their main way of doing that.

When it’s really hot outside your body sweats to cool itself off. But sometimes when your cooling system isn’t working properly, sweating won’t be enough to safely bring your temperature down, and when that happens your body temperature can rise to a dangerous level, which can lead to heat illness.

There are different kinds of heat-related illnesses that range from uncomfortable heat rashes and cramps to heat exhaustion and even heat stroke — which is a medical emergency.

How much does hot weather play into overheating?

Turns out, quite a bit. Really humid weather is of particular concern since it can cause sweat to stay on your skin, making it more difficult for your body to cool itself off.

According to Dr. Katherine Fahy, a UW Medicine family medicine physician who specializes in sports medicine, there is a measurement called a wet bulb globe temperature, which uses temperature and humidity to help determine how safe exercising outdoors is. (To see the wet bulb globe temperature, click the drop-down menu above the map).

Fahy explains, “We use this chart in sports medicine to determine if it is safe to hold sporting events when it is warm outside or if we need to offer more frequent water breaks to help prevent heat illness.”

Are certain people more susceptible?

Though anyone can experience overheating while playing sports, it’s more likely that people who are from a cooler climate and aren’t used to the heat will have issues. Even though bodies do naturally adapt somewhat to being in a warmer climate (with enough time), it’s not always enough.

Older folks, very young children and people with medical conditions are also at higher risk of experiencing heat illness. Plus, some medications like certain decongestants, allergy medications, blood pressure medications and psychiatric medications can also make it harder for your body to handle extreme heat.

What are the most common activities that people overheat from?

Though any activity that is overdone in a really hot or humid environment can potentially lead to overheating, there are definitely some that regularly top the list.

“Heat illness is common in sport camps such as summer football camps, particularly if heavy gear is being worn. Hiking is another common activity where heat illness can easily occur if the weather is not checked prior to leaving,” says Fahy.

She also emphasizes how important it is to think about any furry friends who are accompanying you on outdoor adventures — they aren’t able to sweat and cool down their bodies as efficiently as we are, so keep a close eye on them, especially if you’re far away from help.

Other activities where you’ll see more incidences of overheating? Running sports like track or cross-country, trail running, soccer — essentially any recreational sport that is outside.

What are the signs that you're overheated?

Wondering if you may in fact be overheated (and not just experiencing your first hot flash)?

Fahy explains that there are varying degrees of heat illnesses. The mild version usually consists of things like mild dehydration and muscle cramps. Heat exhaustion, which is more extreme, can include:

  • Cramps
  • Excessive sweating
  • Fatigue
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Dizziness
  • Passing out
  • Headaches

Experiencing any of these symptoms after a really enthusiastic workout or after exercising in hot weather?

“It is important for people to get out of the heat with these symptoms and to hydrate. Icy cold towels or an ice bath can help rapidly cool the body,” says Fahy.

When should you call a doctor?

Though heat exhaustion is serious and should be immediately treated, heat stroke is a medical emergency and needs urgent medical attention.

If your body continues to heat past 103 degrees F, then you might experience heat stroke, which can show the same symptoms as heat exhaustion but to a more extreme degree.

One big sign that a person might be experiencing heat stroke? They aren’t sweating anymore.

“If the skin is hot, dry and red this means the individual is not able to sweat and cool the body,” says Fahy. “911 should be called and the person should be moved to a cooler location, where they can be actively cooled with ice packs or an ice bath while awaiting emergency services.”

For more rapid cooling, she recommends putting the ice packs on areas like the armpits, neck and groin, where there is better blood flow.

Five tips for staying cool

Luckily, there is plenty that you can do to get a workout in without suffering from burnout (like, actual overheating burnout). Here are some of Fahy’s best tips to help keep you chill:

  • Choose your moves wisely. Select exercises that don’t have to be done in the sun — swimming is always a good choice, as is working out in an indoor (and hopefully air-conditioned) gym.
  • Check the weather. Always check the weather (and consider checking the Wet Bulb Globe Temperature) beforehand if you’re planning on exercising outdoors.
  • Timing is everything. Shift your workouts to early or late in the day, since you’ll have less chance of overheating.
  • Hydrate. Make sure to down those fluids (especially water) and replenish your electrolytes.
  • Dress the part. Wearing lightweight and loose clothing when you exercise will help keep your body cool. You can also incorporate icy towels and cooling garments to kick the cold up a notch.