The heat index climbed to 93 degrees before the Bethel football team took the field for its first official practice of the 2017 season Thursday.
While 20 degrees cooler than the first day of practice last year, Bruins athletic trainer Shawn Wiseman still took notice.
The actual temperature stood at 88 degrees Fahrenheit before the team took the field. The heat index combines the temperature with humidity to show how hot it really feels outside; when it inches too high, the heat index also triggers safety measures for Virginia high school sports teams.
When the heat index reaches 95 degrees, teams must practice without equipment to keep players cool. When it reaches 105 degrees, they must move all activities indoors. Thursday's weather never hit the cutoff, but Wiseman adheres to the motto of "better safe than sorry."
"I have to keep an eye on the weather," Wiseman said. "Even if it's right on the line, I have to put my foot down. It's about player safety."
Six Bay Rivers District and three Peninsula District football teams held their first practices of the season Thursday. As the preseason got underway, athletic directors, athletic trainers and coaches shared tips for staying safe in the summer heat.
1. Drink water early…
To stay hydrated, athletes must start drinking water before they set foot on the field, Gloucester athletic director Kristy Hunter said.
"Hydration starts well before practice, and even a few days before that," said Hunter, who is entering her fifth year as the athletic director and served as the Dukes' athletic trainer for nine years before that.
"You can't just drink a 32-ounce water bottle that morning and think you're going to be good."
The Warwick football coaching staff preached the importance of constant hydration to their athletes throughout the summer workouts, in the hopes the lesson would sink in before practice began.
"We need them to take care of their bodies at home, when they're away from us," Warwick coach Corey Hairston said.
2. …and often.
Once athletes arrive at practice, they must increase their water intake if they want to stay one step ahead of the heat.
The NFHS Sports Medicine Advisory Committee recommends drinking 8-to-16 ounces immediately before physical activity, then 4-to-8 ounces every 15-to-20 minutes during physical activity.
"We call it conscious drinking," Denbigh athletic trainer Lewis Flanary said. "Be aware of how much you're drinking, because once you have the sensation of thirst, you're likely dehydrated already. You're already behind the game."
Teams can help athletes stay hydrated with frequent water breaks.
"We try to give them breaks after each drill," Wiseman said. "If it's extremely hot outside, we actually set up water stations right beside each drill or we give them water right in the huddle."
Smithfield coach Reginald Chavis gives his team water breaks every 5-to-12 minutes and sends team managers onto the field with water bottles if he believes any drill gets too intense.
"I'm not one of those guys who believes water makes you weak, so we're making sure to have water breaks after every major period of practice," he said.
3. Preparation goes beyond hydration
Nutrition and conditioning also impact how an athlete responds to hot, humid weather.
A well-rounded diet not only can increase an athlete's fitness level but can help them react better to the heat. Athletes with high body fat percentages can become dehydrated and overheat faster than athletes with lower body fat percentages, according to the NFHS.
"Players think they can eat or drink whatever they want, and they'll be fine, and that's not the case," Wiseman said.
Teams also have tried to ramp up athletes over the last few weeks to prepare for longer practices.
An athlete can acclimatize to weather, but it will take 7-to-14 days to adapt, according to the National Athletic Trainers' Association.
"You have to prepare your body," Phoebus coach Jeremy Blunt said. "That's something we've been working on all offseason."
4. Remain flexible.
When the heat index reaches 95 degrees and the VHSL's heat index restrictions come into play, coaches must have alternative plans of action.
"Coaches have to be flexible," Hunter said. "The weather can change quickly, so you have to be ready to adjust practice times, adjust whether you're in full gear or just a helmet, be ready to go into a gym."
Heat wasn't the only reason Coach Andy Linn of five-time defending Bay Rivers District champion Lafayette moved his practice starting time to 7 p.m. this season, but it was the biggest one. Linn said a half-dozen times last year his team was supposed to begin practice outdoors at 3:30 p.m., but remained inside until 5:30 because of the prohibitive heat index.
Blunt and his staff monitor the heat index closely, but they also pay attention to their players and their own bodies.
"At the end of the day, it's just good judgment," Blunt said. "If it's unbearable out there to the point where we as coaches wouldn't want to stand in it, we understand that these young men don't want to run around in it."
5. Don't be afraid to speak up.
If an athlete starts experiencing any symptoms of heat-related illness, which can include cramps, heavy sweating, headache, dizziness or nausea, he or she should tell a coach or athletic trainer immediately.
Some athletes try to shake off the first warning signs, which can cause a case of dehydration to escalate into a more serious problem.
Athletes sweat at different rates, and medications and other medical conditions can also affect athletes' responses to the heat, according to the NFHS Sports Medicine Advisory Committee.
"Let the athletic trainer know right away if something seems off," Hunter said. "Heat-related illnesses can turn quickly. Trainers are good at spotting when something isn't right, but don't wait. If you have a headache, if you're feeling warm, tell the trainer."
Yanchulis can be reached by phone at 757-298-5176.