Research brings the heat for Kiwi athletes ahead of Olympics

31 October 2019

Stephen Fenemor
PhD student Stephen Fenemor, pictured next to the environmental chamber at the Adams Centre for High Performance, is prepping athletes for the Olympic games using acclimation methods.

The New Zealand Sevens’ build up to the Tokyo Olympics is proving to be a hot one, aided by a University of Waikato doctoral student training them in temperatures over 35 degrees.

University of Waikato PhD student, Stephen Fenemor, is working with the All Black Sevens and Black Ferns Sevens teams at the University’s Adams Centre for High Performance in Mt Maunganui, putting the teams through their paces in a heat chamber using acclimation training.

The Tokyo Olympics start in July 2020 and are expected to be the hottest Olympics on record, with temperatures of up to 35 degrees and 80 per cent humidity. Managing elite athletes in those conditions is a major focus for all countries attending the games, said Mr Fenemor.

“That’s a really challenging environment to thermoregulate in. In that environment, because it’s just so hot and it’s also humid, you can’t offload heat and you can’t cool yourself down using normal methods,” said Mr Fenemor.

He said athletes sweat, which is the bodies most powerful form of natural cooling, but the heat and humidity mean the sweat cannot evaporate as it would in a cooler climate, so they need to rely on artificial forms of cooling.

“We know heat acclimation works and there has been a lot of work with endurance athletes, but not as much work has been done within elite team sports, such as rugby sevens.”

His research is funded through High Performance Sport NZ, New Zealand Rugby and the University of Waikato, and will specifically look at heat management strategies in elite rugby sevens.

Mr Fenemor said there were often challenges in getting elite athletes to incorporate acclimation trainings due to the competing priorities of their training schedules, as it had to work around the rest of their training schedule. Heat acclimation trainings would normally involve 60 to 90 minutes in the heat chamber every day.

“Elite athletes don’t always have that time available so it’s working out when the best time is to employ these techniques, and what are the best techniques to use. The overall aim is that these teams will go to the Olympics in the best shape possible to handle the conditions both physiologically and mentally,” Mr Fenemor said.

Exactly how the trainings are run and what techniques are used in the chamber was top secret he said, but they were also exploring cooling techniques including cold water immersion, using ice slushies, cooling garments and ice vests to control the athletes’ temperatures.

“We’re also experimenting with those things to work out the best time to apply them to ensure they have the most benefit for the athletes.”

He said the research worked on a worst-case scenario, so athletes were often exposed to temperatures or humidity rates slightly higher than expected.

“I’m not sure if the athletes thank us for it at the time, however, after a few sessions in the heat, the athletes start to become more comfortable performing in that environment so I think they can appreciate how it’s helping in their build-up to the games,” Mr Fenemor said.

He has been working with the teams since July 2018 and said it’s been inspiring to be part of the environment in the build-up to the Olympics.

“It’s really inspiring to see how the athletes can operate day in and day out. How they can put themselves through really hard training sessions and just pull themselves together and move on to the next one.”

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