Australia’s champion wheelchair rugby team the Steelers are currently in camp in Darwin preparing for the heat and humidity of Tokyo, where they hope to win a third consecutive Paralympic gold medal.
Some athletes, for instance those with spinal cord injuries, can struggle to regulate their own body temperature
That can be particularly challenging in sports like wheelchair rugby
The Tokyo Heat Project is finding ways to help athletes cool down, using the heat and humidity of Darwin as a test environmentAds
Tokyo’s heat and humidity will be a challenge for all, but for some Paralympians specifically it requires extra attention because when it comes to regulating their body heat, a process known as thermoregulation, some of them have a reduced, or even zero, capability.
For the past three years the Australian Institute of Sport has been running the Tokyo Heat Project, accessible to all sports looking for another competitive edge.
Shae Graham has been a member of the Steelers since 2019.
She is one of those with a spinal cord injury who need to be particularly mindful of core temperature while training and competing because of an inability to sweat.
“Depending on your level of injury sometimes it’s a bit hard to regulate heat when you’re in a different environment, so it’s really important to monitor [it],” Shae told The Ticket.
“I’m pretty lucky in that I still sweat a little bit so I can regulate my temperature a little bit more than some of the other guys can.
“Most of us will play through it, it’s when we come off the court as a sub that you’ve got to start to cool yourself down to bring your core body temp back down so that you’re ready to get back on the court if you’re needed.
“I normally just come off and make sure I have heaps of cold water, if there’s a fan on the side of the court I’ll sit by that and cool down, some of the guys have spray bottles full of water and I’ll steal one of those sometimes and spray myself down.
“To be able to monitor that and especially work with the AIS and to understand what works best for you and your body … is a great thing for our performance overall.”
The Tokyo Heat Project is run by AIS doctor Peta Maloney, who has been in camp with the Steelers in Darwin.
“A few years ago we recognised that obviously in the lead-up to Tokyo heat preparation was going to be really quite an important part,” Dr Maloney said.
“We just wanted to ensure that all sports had access to the resources and support they required for those hot conditions.”
While those sports played outdoors are used to considering climate impacts on performance, indoor sports also need to be aware of the change in conditions and how the body will respond.
Dr Maloney says “it can be both active exposure or passive exposure”, with para-athletes requiring individually tailored strategies.
“It is predominantly outdoor sports that have prolonged exposure, but there are instances where we [don’t] want to neglect support to those sports who are indoor or have particular impairments that may put them at greater risk of heat-related illness or detriments in performance because of the heat.
“Wheelchair rugby is a great example … most of them to some degree have some sort of impairment to their thermoregulation.
“For the amputee athletes it’s that reduced skin surface area to dissipate heat.
“For our spinal cord-injured athletes it’s an impaired skin blood flow and sweating response which means they tend to get hotter for a given exercise compared to someone who has an intact thermoregulatory capacity.”
At the Darwin camp the AIS has been monitoring the athletes’ core temperatures during exercise, analysing each individual’s response to their thermal sensations and comfort level, and designing tailor-made cooling strategies.
“This has been a really important component of wheelchair rugby’s preparation because we know that those individual responses can vary so significantly,” Dr Maloney said.
“That then informs what we do with them — everything from before they even leave to go and compete, through to what they do for recovery and what we do in that period between when they have finished competing and their next game.
“From a physiological point of view the most sensible cooling strategy for them is to spray their skin surface with a mist … and then sit in front of a fan, which is essentially mimicking our sweat response.
“The added challenge that comes with wheelchair rugby is that they’ve got arm sleeves on, their uniform covers so much of their skin surface that it becomes a bit challenging to wet their skin and get that evaporative cooling happening.”
Other strategies then come into play – the availability of ice-based drinks such as slushees, and the use of pre-game cooling strategies.
Shae Graham says it is just one component that the team is hoping will give them an edge heading into Tokyo, with the aim of defending the team’s gold medal.
“It’s going to be a totally different Paralympics, a totally different competition, but we’re doing everything we can to prepare mentally and physically for that.
“We’re working as hard as we can with what COVID is throwing at us … and yeah, we’re going there with the intention to bring back that third gold medal.”