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Ask Dr. Voight: Why Are Sprinklers Banned On Marathon Routes?

Sprinkler systems may seem like a common-sense way to cool down during a marathon race, but Dr. Voight explains that the superficial coolness provided by a sprinkler can increase the risk of heat illness.

Marathons are a popular way to challenge our bodies and enjoy the brief summer season that Minnesota offers—but they are not to be undertaken lightly. A marathon puts significant demands on the body, especially during hot, humid weather.

Sports medicine physician Dr. Angela Voight understands the rigors of marathon races. She is a runner herself, and provides medical coverage at many community races and marathons. The longer a runner is on the course during hot weather, the greater the risk of heat-related illness.

“Statistically, the end of a long race is the place where people will collapse or succumb to symptoms,” Dr. Voight explains. “That’s why the medical tent is positioned near the finish line. When temperatures rise, we look for runners who are tired or sick; heat illness is our main concern. People often push through a half or full marathon, even when they aren’t doing well, to get to the finish line. If they are in distress, it tends to catch up with them when the finish line comes into sight.”

“When it’s hot, you have to adjust your goals and your race plan,” Dr. Voight says. “I tell people to drink to thirst. If it’s going to be warmer than normal, drink a bit more, and if an event will last more than an hour, having an electrolyte drink or a sports beverage is good.” In the past, marathon courses would be outfitted with sprinkler systems to briefly cool down runners. However, this practice has been discontinued.

“It’s really interesting,” says Dr. Voight. “Research has shown that when you have a temporary skin cooling—the type a sprinkler provides—it doesn’t help you to cool your core temperature. In fact, that superficial cooling that feels so good in the middle of a race can increase your body’s core temperature. The coolness constricts your blood vessels, thwarting your body’s ability to dissipate heat. As a result, your core temperature can rise.”

When runners do exhibit symptoms of heat illness, Dr. Voight and her team treat them with cold towels chilled in ice water. “When you use cold towels and leave them on, they will cool you down,” she explains. In extreme cases, runners are submerged in an ice bath at the medical tent until their core temperature drops, and are then transported to the hospital for further treatment.

“I remember treating a runner who led a group in a half-marathon,” Dr. Voight says. “Her goal was to run within a couple of seconds of a certain time. She paced her group wonderfully, but by the end of the race she was horribly overheated, with life-threatening heat illness. We had to cool her down in the tub and she pulled through, but she was extremely sick. It showed me how runners can be so motivated that they will push through everything to meet a goal, even when it puts health at risk. It is a reminder that runners can really get into trouble if they don’t listen to their bodies.”

“I enjoy giving back to the running community by volunteering at race events,” Dr. Voight concludes. “I love to see runners out enjoying an event, and I’m there to make sure they are safe.”

Summit Orthopedics offers comprehensive sports medicine expertise

From Olympians to pro athletes to kids in youth sports and those that just want to be more active—Summit Orthopedics delivers expert care by fellowship-trained sports medicine physicians. If you are recently injured or concerned about ongoing pain, Summit Orthopedics sports medicine specialists have the expertise to evaluate your discomfort and develop a plan to quickly and safely help you get back to being active.

Start your journey to stronger, healthier athletic condition. Find your sports medicine expert, request an appointment online, or call us at (651) 968–5201 to schedule a sports medicine consultation.

Summit has convenient locations across the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area, serving Minnesota and western Wisconsin. We have state-of-the-art centers for comprehensive orthopedic care in Eagan, MNVadnais Heights, MN, Plymouth, MN, and Woodbury, MN, as well as several additional community clinics.

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