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Exercise Physiology: Playing in the Heat: Reducing the Risk, While Enhancing Performance

By Michael F. Bergeron, Ph.D., FACSM

Whether you are getting ready to play in the extreme heat of the summer, or even if you will not be competing in the heat until next summer, now is a great time to reassess your strategy for minimizing the risk and problems associated playing tennis in the heat. Why now?  Well, if you had problems with heat in the past, the circumstances that led up to your problems may be still fresh in your mind. Secondly, having a plan well ahead of time will help you to organize and implement your strategy for playing in the heat more effectively. Moreover, some aspects of enhancing your tolerance of the heat cannot be effectively addressed if you wait until the last minute. With this in mind, let’s look at a few of the factors that will help you to be ready to play in the heat.


  • Get fit. High aerobic fitness and an appropriate level of body fat can give you a big advantage when it comes to tolerating the heat, reducing heat storage, and effectively regulating your body temperature during play.
  • Taper your training. Reduce the volume of training during the days preceding a hot weather event. This gives your body a chance to recover, so that you don’t start the event fatigued or overtrained.
  • Acclimatize to the heat. Training in the heat will promote heat acclimatization, which reduces the risk of heat illness and helps you to perform better. If possible (especially if you are traveling to a much hotter environment), plan to arrive at least a few days early. Even though full heat acclimatization takes 10-14 days (if you are not used to the heat at all), 2-3 days can really help.
  • Clothing – be sure that you have the proper clothing on hand. White or other light clothing reflects solar radiation (which can readily heat you up). Use a single layer of loose fitting, lightweight cotton/polyester blend rather than 100% cotton or tightly woven nylon. Sweat-saturated clothing should be replaced by dry clothing whenever possible – so pack plenty of extras. Lose the dark cap – wear a light colored one.


  • Drink plenty of fluids (water, juice, milk, sport drinks) throughout the day. Avoid excessive caffeine intake (soft drinks, coffee, etc.).
  • Check your urine – it should be fairly light-colored or almost clear. Note: if you are constantly in the bathroom to urinate (e.g., every 45 minutes), you may be drinking too much!
  • Drink regularly during all practice and warm-up sessions.
  • Drink at each changeover. Typically, older adolescents and adults can comfortably drink up to 48-64 ounces per hour (younger players need much less). This rate of fluid intake can prevent large fluid deficits from developing for most players.
  • Continue drinking after play, to restore any fluid deficit that remains. If you sweated a lot and have to play again soon, fluid intake should begin immediately.
  • Add some salt to your diet (by eating certain high-salt foods or adding it to meals or drinks), before and after you play in a hot environment, especially if you are prone to cramping. This helps your body to retain the fluid that you drink and avoid problems such as heat-related muscle cramps.

Other Factors:

  • Eat plenty of carbohydrates (bread, cereal, potatoes, rice, fruit, etc.). Playing tennis in the heat causes the body to use carbohydrates faster; thus, your requirement for carbohydrate is greater.
  • Get plenty of sleep. Insufficient sleep increases your susceptibility to heat illness.
  • Stay in a cool environment (especially just before play) as much as possible. This can reduce the physiological and psychological strain when you are on the court.
  • Practice early in the morning or in the early evening when the weather is not as extreme.
  • Medications – ask your doctor about any medication that you are taking with respect to its potential effect on hydration or tolerance of the heat.
  • Recent illness – especially if it involved fever, a respiratory track infection, or diarrhea, a recent illness (within the past week) can make you more susceptible to problems in the heat. Consult your doctor about participation.
  • Sunburn – sunburn can increase your susceptibility to heat illness. Use sunscreen (SPF 15-30) on all exposed areas of the skin when you practice and play.
  • Players, coaches, and parents should be advised of the early signs of heat illness – these include headache, nausea, dizziness, clumsiness, weakness, muscle twinges or cramps, irritability, apathy, and confusion. One or more of these symptoms may be enough to discontinue further play and seek medical attention.

Addressing these factors will help you to play longer, more effectively, and safely in hot weather. The courts will be heating up before you know it – will you be ready?

Dr. Bergeron is a member of the USTA Sport Science Committee.

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