On the 24th July 2021 the opening ceremony for the Tokyo Olympics will be held at the Japan National Stadium in Shinjuku. This prestigious event hosts 33 sporting events with competitors from 205 countries and is watched by a staggering 2.1 billion TV viewers from across the world. The equestrian disciplines have been part of the Olympic programme since 1900 and over this time technology and scientific knowledge has progressed greatly.
The greatest challenge faced by every athlete competing in the Tokyo Olympics will be the environmental conditions. During July – August the average temperature of Tokyo will be 30 degrees with a relative humidity of 78%. The human body regulates temperature in four ways; conduction, convection, evaporation and radiation. In these environmental conditions evaporation, or sweating as it's more commonly know, will be greatly hindered. When the body cools itself by evaporation it relies on something known as a thermal gradient. This is how quickly heat is transferred from hot to cold. The conditions in Japan, including the humidity, will create a very small thermal gradient, hindering the body’s ability to dissipate heat.
Impact of heat on performance
Our Instagram has covered the topic of hydration and explored how this can impact on performance. When exercising in hot environments the body loses fluid and electrolytes. These must be replaced to avoid dehydration which causes an increase in reaction time and, in more extreme cases, heat stroke and muscle cramps, all of which will result in an decrease in riding performance and increase the risk of injury.
How will the equestrian athletes prepare for Tokyo?
The equestrian disciplines are supported by UK Sport and an organisation called the English Institute of Sport (EIS). This gives them access to a highly experienced support team of strength and conditioning coaches, nutritionists and physiologists. In preparation for the games, equestrian athletes will spend some time in a heat chamber at one of the EIS’s physiology laboratories. A heat chamber is a temperature-controlled room or pod that can be temperature regulated by physiologists to recreate similar conditions to the ones the athletes will face in Tokyo. It is important for the physiologists to assess how an athlete’s body reacts to heat. The athletes will complete a number of sessions in a heat chamber that will progress from sitting to participating in some controlled exercise.
Heat acclimation in athletes
Heat acclimation is known as the adaptations that occur to the body after controlled exposure to heat. During heat acclimation athletes undergo 30 – 60 minutes of low intensity exercise at temperatures above 35 degrees for 7 – 14 days. Research has shown that when exposed to heat after this intervention period an athlete’s core temperature does not increase as greatly, the composition of their sweat is more dilute meaning that a smaller quantity of electrolytes are lost, and their heart is able to maintain the volume of blood pumped out and around the body. All these adaptations will positively improve the ability of the athlete to cope in environments such as those in Tokyo and could lead to that all-important performance improvement.
The Olympic Games is extremely high stakes and therefore much of the research into heat acclimation has taken place in secret behind closed doors. The real interest will come in Autumn 2021 when the research is released so an insight can be gained into what preparation and new discoveries were made in the lead up to the games.