This summer, the University of Brighton’s Environmental Extremes Lab (EEL) was invited to to provide heat acclimation support to Paralympic legend, David Weir CBE, in preparation for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, working alongside Dr Richard Burden (English Institute of Sport and St Mary’s University). This post recounts the project that was led by Bill Norton (Lab Technician and EEL Member) as part of his BASES Supervised Experience towards his BASES accreditation.
With support from Dr Neil Maxwell and two of our MSc students (Andy Knowles and Greg Wright) studying Applied Sport Physiology and Applied Exercise Physiology, respectively, this heat acclimation was divided between the University of Brighton and St Mary’s University Twickenham heat chambers during a 3-week period in the lead up to the Games. Aiming to compete in three events at this summer’s Games (in order: 5000m, 1500m and Marathon), David was hoping to add to his illustrious Paralympic medal haul of six golds, two silvers and two bronzes, alongside an impressive eight London Marathon victories (losing count on the number of podium finishes)…and the many other achievements in his career!
The purpose of David’s training in the heat focused more on being comfortable in the anticipated hot and humid temperatures of Tokyo whilst aiming to ascertain some of the typical physiological adaptations associated with heat acclimation, whilst being mindful that spinal cord injured athletes are not expected to adapt to the heat as well. Using his custom designed rollers, each visit in our thermal chamber at 30°C/80%RH (progressing to 32°C/80%RH during the latter visits) lasted 60-90 minutes depending on the prescribed number of intervals from his coach for that session. The aim was for David to stay in these hot and humid temperatures for 90 minutes, if possible, to try and maximise heat adaptations. Once David would finish his interval training, the remaining time was spent resting passively in the thermal chamber, provided he was able to do so. As mentioned previously, alongside the physiological benefits, one of the key factors was for David to be comfortable in this environment, therefore considering the psychological impact of the heat (i.e. developing those perceptual cues) along with the expected thermoregulatory improvements.
For athletes with spinal cord injuries, there is potentially a greater impairment of thermoregulatory function. Research has shown that those with amputation, spinal cord injuries, multiple sclerosis, or cerebral palsy are likely to suffer the most in the heat. Some Paralympic athletes will have a reduced ability to sweat and dissipate heat. Furthermore, athletes with spinal cord injuries are unable to sweat or control their skin blood flow below what is referred to as their ‘injury level’. The higher up the injury is, the smaller the body surface that can sweat. As a result, it is likely that core temperature will increase at a faster rate. Nevertheless, heat acclimation is still important as the International Paralympic Committee emphasised before the Games, alongside Staying Hydrated, Keeping Cool and Being Heat Illness Aware.
Therefore, it was important to ascertain David’s physiological responses to the demands of the heat, but also for him to gain awareness of the sensations, visual cues, and feedback to aid him with his pacing strategies and what alterations may be required in the lead up to the Games. There were multiple occasions during his time with us where David would make small adjustments to the chair, trial different cooling options and identify the optimal position for him to be able to perform for the duration of his events in Tokyo. Without his experiences at both the University of Brighton and St Mary’s University, it is likely he would have discovered these issues during his preparation whilst in Tokyo, or worse, during one of the events!
Following multiple visits to our Welkin Laboratories and the completion of his training block in the heat that his physiologist, Dr Richard Burden, provided, there were improvements in core temperature (using both the CORE device and tympanic monitoring), heart rate, visual sweat response, and perceptual measures (rating of perceived exertion, thermal sensation, and thermal comfort). General discussion prior to training and in between intervals stimulated conversations regarding pacing strategies and tips to stay cool pre-race whilst waiting around the start line and during the competition to maintain performance advantages, but more importantly, reduce thermal strain and risk of heat illness. Typical pre-race practices include ice vests/garments, ice slushies etc., which aim to reduce starting core temperature whilst also providing a cool and refreshing perceptual benefit. There were also discussions around maintaining the adaptations acquired through the heat acclimation once David was in Tokyo of which he took our recommendations on board and implemented what he felt was appropriate whilst staying in the hotel and out on track during training sessions.
Competing in Tokyo
In a very competitive field, containing current reigning Paralympic champion Marcel Hug (800m and marathon), David was certainly up against it. Unfortunately, the first two events (5000m and 1500m) did not go as David would have hoped, missing out on the finals of both events. During the first half of the 5000m event, Weir was close behind Hug and Romanchuk in third until Hug pulled clear of the rest of the pack and left everyone over 100m behind. The 1500m was quite extraordinary as David bowed out of track racing with a personal best, despite finishing at the back of the pack in what was the fastest T54 1500m race in history! All ten athletes finished with personal bests!
However, not to go down without a fight, in slippery and wet conditions, David was able to produce a trademark sprint finish to come home in 5th place in the men’s T54 marathon. Afterwards, he was quoted as saying “I left everything possible out on that course today, so I’m just absolutely knackered now. I couldn’t try any harder”. Importantly, David did not incur a heat-related illness and that is an important outcome. In challenging conditions, David gave everything he had, and we are all incredibly proud of his achievements, not just in these Games, but over the years, reminiscing on the magnitude of his successes and the elite mentality to perform at the highest level for over 20 years! David will always be considered a legend of the sport, enhancing the Paralympic profile, and the impact of his legacy has inspired many of the younger generation and will continue to do so for many more years to come. His induction to the Hall of Fame and England Athletics Athlete of the Decade after a public vote is testament to the impact he has made. Once again, congratulations David!
It was an absolute pleasure and an honour for me personally and the Environmental Extremes Lab to offer support to David Weir CBE on his journey to Tokyo 2020/21. I have learnt so much that I can take forward in my own practitioner career.