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Keeping your cool: Avoiding heat-related illness in football

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High school football practice begins today across North Dakota. Players will be strapping on their shoulder pads, forming their mouth guards, lacing up their cleats and taking to the field.

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There's just one problem with that.

It's probably going to be hot.

Since 1994, two to three football players have died from heat-related issues every year in this country. That is, until last year, when five players and one coach died due to searing heat during practice.

All of these deaths occurred in southern states like Texas and Florida, but keep in mind that the heat-related death that really brought this issue into the spotlight happened 11 years ago just one state away.

Minnesota Vikings offensive lineman Korey Stringer died at the age of 27 from complications with heatstroke during training camp in 2001. His death made teams at every level rethink their methods of beating the heat.

Despite this, heat-related deaths, which seem preventable, continue to happen.

Temperatures for the next week or practice should remain in the low to mid 80s and most players, let's face it, have probably spent the summer working part-time jobs and playing Xbox 360. I'm not saying there is anything wrong with summer jobs or gaming, but the fact of the matter is that most players are probably not fit enough to handle four hours of rigorous training, wearing a helmet and shoulder pads, in 80- to 90-degree weather every day for the next two weeks and coaches, parents, and the players themselves must take necessary precautions to make sure no one's health is at risk.

So here are a few things to remember when practice starts.

Stay Hydrated

I know this sounds like common sense, but get something to drink if you're thirsty. Don't take a water break after every play, because too much fluid can be a big problem as well. You need to be especially careful on really humid days. If you're an hour into practice, haven't had anything to drink, and yet you're not sweating or thirsty, then you are already in a bad way.

Adjust your diet

Sugar is pretty bad. Caffeine is really bad. Salt can actually be pretty good.

Salty foods like pretzels and crackers can be great for replenishing electrolytes (like sodium) and carbohydrates after an intense workout.

Eliminate or, at the very least, limit the amount of soda you drink during the season. Cherry Coke is amazing, but it's not doing you any favors.

Wear proper clothing

Having played high school football, I am well aware of the fact that football equipment is not the most breathable attire out there, and that shoulder pads are disgusting after a week or so because of that. Since that stuff does not let air circulate very well, make sure everything else you wear does. Wear light colors as much as you can, as well as materials that wick moisture away from the skin.

Coaches should also keep in mind that the equipment can get fairly heavy, and should consider easing into wearing full pads to let players get used to the weight and the heat. Maybe have them wear only their helmets the first few days, then add shoulder pads and pants with leg pads at a later time.

Cool Down

Make sure you take time to cool down after practice. When you're active, blood tends to pool in your legs. If you don't walk around for 15 minutes or so after exercising, that blood won't circulate fast enough, and you could get dizzy and even pass out. Find shade or go indoors if you want, but keep moving.

If all of these things can be taken into account, I have no doubt this will be a successful, and safe, season.

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