Heat treatment

Image: Thinkstock

Image: Thinkstock

In summary: 
  • UTS and the French National Institute of Sport, Expertise and Performance have undertaken a collaborative research project to study the adaptation of athletes to different climates
  • Their aim is to assist French athletes to prepare for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games, held in tropical Rio de Janeiro

For professional athletes competing overseas, small differences in temperature can have a big impact on performance. UTS sport scientist Professor Aaron Coutts and Adjunct Professor Christophe Hausswirth – also Head of Research at the French National Institute of Sport, Expertise and Performance (INSEP) – have led a collaborative research project to study the adaptation of athletes to different climates. Their aim is to assist French athletes to prepare for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games, held in tropical Rio de Janeiro.

Aaron Coutts. Photo b Fiona Livy. Aaron Coutts. Photo by Fiona Livy.

Aaron Coutts

Next year, the Summer Olympic Games are held in Brazil and because Paris is located in the Northern Hemisphere, it’ll be wintertime; so when it’s eight degrees there it could be 28 degrees in Rio de Janeiro. Thus, it is very important for French athletes competing at next year’s Olympics to experience what it’s like to train in the heat. How their bodies cope, adapt, and recover will underlie their overall performance.

On the upside, we know there are many benefits to training in the heat. Numerous sport and exercise studies have shown training in the heat facilitates a positive physiological response in athletic performance. This means you can tolerate heat and pain better, retain more fluid in the blood, and run a more efficient cardiovascular system.

But we also know there are many risks, including overheating, heat stroke and dehydration. The thing about training in any stressful environment is that you shouldn’t actually go and do more training. Despite this, it is not uncommon to see athletes training harder – attempting to increase their training load because they think they will get fitter. The only thing it is guaranteed to do is increase their chances of injury or illness.

The smart way to train in a stressful environment is to keep your training load the same, but increase your physiological and psychological stress. It’s a theory we put to the test in this collaboration with INSEP. Essentially, the objective of this study was to learn the best ways to use the environment to help prepare for competition. This was important to INSEP, which has a long history in training elite athletes including Olympic medallists. It’s been a joint partnership right from the inception of the idea through to the research design and the implementation and interpretation of our findings. 

In the Caribbean, there is a French island called Guadeloupe; it experiences consistently warm temperatures of around 30 degrees every day and it’s only an eight-hour flight from Paris. To us, it was an ideal location to use as a base for Rio de Janeiro. What we did was train a group of French triathletes for a baseline period of one month in their home city. We then split the group into two – one travelled to Guadeloupe (the heat group) while the other stayed in Paris (the control group). For the next two weeks, both groups continued their normal training programs. We monitored everything – their physiological, perceptual, psychological, sleep and nutritional responses, and of course, the athletes’ wellbeing.

When the heat group returned home to Paris, we followed both groups again for a number of weeks to compare results and see how their performance was affected. It was a large project spearheaded by me and Associate Professor Rob Duffield from UTS, and Professor Christophe Hausswirth and Senior Physiologist Yaan Le Meur from the research department at INSEP.

Christophe Hausswirth. Images supplied. Christophe Hausswirth. Images supplied.

Christophe Hausswirth

Heat is a hot topic in the world of sports; but for us in France, it was never a key consideration – until recent times. Since then, we’ve learned that to prepare for global competitions we need to pay attention to the role of heat in sports and exercise performance. In this Guadeloupe study, we engaged with UTS because we wanted to work with the best. I hoped UTS researchers would be able to provide scientific insight into helping our French athletes prepare for next year’s Olympic Games, and they did not disappoint.

Using real athletes, doing real studies – this is applied sports science research. Our study sent a group of French triathletes to the Caribbean. When they returned home to Paris (which was around 10 degrees at the time), we continued to monitor their performance, paying specific attention to how they maintained their performance benefits, and what mechanisms underlined those benefits. For example, five days after the athletes landed in Paris we observed a moderate increase in performance, and 12 days after they landed we recorded a large increase in performance. So, from this study, we’ve learned a lot about designing future heat training camps. And because it was so applied, the research can be translated directly into training programs right now.

Later this month, UTS and INSEP are co-hosting a conference where the findings of this study will be released. The 2015 INSEP Heat Conference will bring together leading sports scientists, high performance centres and universities, coaches, athletes and students from around the world to share the latest developments in heat stress and performance. We’re going to present the practical applications of this study here, and in doing so, we’ll deliver this information straight to the user as quickly as we can.

I am now an Adjunct Professor at UTS; this came about following a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed between UTS and INSEP in 2013, but we’ve been publishing and collaborating together for closer to four years. Having an MoU in place means we can approach future collaborative projects with more formality, engage in PhD student exchange opportunities and promote stronger academic linkages.

This MoU was the first INSEP signed with a research department from another country; now we have 11. Having the first MoU partnership with UTS was deliberate – our teams work across very similar areas of applied sports performance and we’ve developed a lot of trust and confidence over the years. This formal agreement will only encourage further research collaboration, and I’m looking forward to what the future will bring.

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