Hallucinations, cramps, even death: Sports in Arizona heat can be dangerous

Hiking in Arizona is popular but can also be dangerous if the right precautions aren’t taken. Nearly 1,300 heat-related deaths occurred from 2005-2015, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services. (Photo by Take a Hike Arizona via flickr/Creative Commons)

PHOENIX — Exercising in the Arizona heat can be a dangerous — and mind-altering — decision.

“(I) was doing 16 miles on the mountain and was coming down and started hallucinating,” former Arizona State runner Victoria Jackson said. “So I started thinking that I saw water bottles stashed out in the desert and was looking behind cacti to try to find these water bottles that obviously weren’t there.”

Summer in Arizona is not for the faint of heart with temperatures frequently in triple digits. Approximately 2,000 people go to Arizona emergency rooms for heat-related illnesses annually and nearly 1,300 deaths occurred from 2005-2015, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services.

The Valley never sleeps when it comes to physical activities and those who exercise outdoors are advised to take precautions. The most common types of heat-related illnesses are heat exhaustion, heatstroke and dehydration. Cramping is also common in the Arizona heat.

Perry Edinger, a former athletic trainer at Arizona State, experienced significant issues while running the Badwater, a 135-mile race from Death Valley to Mt. Whitney in California. He became ill as his body ran low on salt. He intended to drink two water bottles every three miles, but because of the heat, drank two every mile.

The race took a major toll on his body and affected him for a long time. He is no longer able to eat dairy products, and it took him three years to be able to run without experiencing headaches or feeling sick. The race also affected his memory.

“It took five years for me to actually remember anything of that race after the five-mile mark,” Edinger said.

To best avoid illnesses and injuries, experts advise athletes to engage in extensive preparation, as well as know their bodies and take precautions. Maricopa County Park Ranger Nikki Bunnell said when hiking, the first thing to do is to look at the weather forecast.

“Look a couple days ahead,” Bunnell said. “Watch the patterns of how quickly the temperatures rise.”

Experienced hikers prepare themselves differently from inexperienced ones. Those who hit the trails often dress in loose-fitting attire that covers the body. Experts recommend that those who work or play in the heat wear long sleeves to avoid exposing the skin to too much sun.

During the summer, Bunnell recommends trails to hikers based on weather conditions. She also keeps a notebook on where people go in case they need help or do not return in a timely manner.

“We’re not going to spy on you, we’re not going to chase you,” Bunnell said. “We just want to know where you are. We don’t care what you’re doing. … We’re legitimately concerned about people’s safety.”

Hiking and jogging are not the only popular activities taking place in the intense Arizona heat. High school sports have become so serious that athletes train year-round.

In Arizona, many teams work out in the summer. The sport where heat illness strikes athletes most is football. Restrictions are placed on practice times and contact, but it does not always prevent heat-related emergencies.

Desert Ridge High School head athletic trainer Tony Cukierski uses a program to help prevent heat illness. The first week of the fall season, he encourages coaches to start practices before 10 a.m. or after 5 p.m. This system is designed to stay away from activity in the hottest parts of the day.

“It really helps us avoid and prevent heat illness,” Cukierski said. “If you prevent it, then you don’t have to manage it or deal with it or risk getting severely ill.”

The coaches at Desert Ridge are loyal to the schedule. Because it is not a school district policy, no consequences exist for coaches who do not follow it.

Most high schools in the Valley have no choice but to go outdoors if they want to get work in during the summer. Colleges and professional teams have the money and the luxury to stay indoors.

The Arizona Cardinals and the Arizona State Sun Devils have indoor practice facilities in Tempe. Both the Cardinals and Arizona Diamondbacks play in air-conditioned stadiums, and the Rattlers play their games in an arena despite practicing outside.

The only professional team in town without the perk of playing indoors is the Phoenix Rising FC soccer team. Its practice and gameday pitch are located on the same facility, meaning the players have no escape from the heat.

Training in the intense weather can turn into a home-field advantage for the soccer club, but the players must be certain not to get carried away in practice.

“It’s like a fine balance,” Phoenix Rising FC defender Jordan Stewart said. “You want to train well in heat so especially in home games you can perform better. But you don’t want to over-exert yourself and be dehydrated.”

Phoenix Rising FC head athletic trainer Brendan Hodge said that the team has been able to combat heat-related issues well. He makes sure the players stay hydrated at all times, using water, Powerade and other hydration materials.

Phoenix Rising FC has seen the benefit of practicing in the heat when it comes time to play a home game. Stewart compared visiting teams coming to the heat to going to Colorado to play in higher altitude.

“If teams are used to playing a certain way and then the elements are different, you’re always going to have an advantage as the home team,” Stewart said. “I’ve seen a lot of teams over the last couple months. The last fifteen minutes they’re gassed. They haven’t got anything left because of the conditions.”

Athletes at Arizona State can use the heat to their advantage as well. The first few games each season at Sun Devil Stadium have weather of 100-plus degrees at kickoff. Often, the athletes struggle with cramps and can encounter fatigue toward the end of the game.

Football is not the only outdoor sport that takes place during the fall semester. Cross country starts at the beginning of September. The ASU coaching staff, headed by Louis Quintana, makes sure its runners are in Arizona the summer before their first year to become accustomed to the heat.

“It’s a major adjustment to learn how to run in the heat and also to run early,” Jackson said, “and still have the physical and mental energy to go to class.”

While those training in the Arizona heat learn to adapt, they cannot avoid hydrating. Consistent water intake before, during and after activity is vital. It is most important to take in a large amount of fluids before physical activity. When a person starts to feel thirsty, experts say, it is too late.

If a person is suffering from a heat-related illness, it is imperative to seek help. Cooling the core body temperature, bringing the person to shade and having them consume fluids is key. It is important not to panic, but Jackson does have some advice for those who find themselves or a friend suffering.

“Don’t be shy, be assertive,” Jackson said. “If there is somebody else on the trail, just ask them if they have water on them.

“If they know you’re in a distressed state, they are probably going to give it to you.”