Weather is the one omnipresent variable in sport. From unexpected windstorms in a cycling race, to a malfunctioning air conditioning system that renders a basketball gymnasium insufferable, athletes in every sport must train and compete in less-than-desirable environmental conditions. Success in competition will often depend on how seamlessly the athlete was able to incorporate anticipated climatic and other factors into everyday training Routines.
Climate, weather, and the environmental conditions are terms commonly used in describing various external impacts on sporting events and athletes: each word has a distinct and separate meaning from the others. Climate is the recording and tabulation of weather data over a period of time. This factor is used to determine the climatic regions of Earth, those places that are said to share a common pattern of weather. Weather is the state of the atmosphere at a given place on Earth at a particular time; weather includes the temperature, the moisture (both as a percentage in the air and as the type and severity of rainfall), wind, cloud cover, the presence of phenomena such as storms, and barometric pressure readings. Weather by its nature is an indication of present atmospheric events or forecasted events in the short term.
Environmental conditions is the term with the broadest meaning in a sport context. The environment may be any outdoor or indoor condition that potentially impacts on performance. The environment will include prevailing weather conditions, the physical nature of the venue, such as topography or altitude, as well as man-made factors such as pollution, traffic that impacts on events such as cycling, or noise, such as stadium noise. As American marathoner Alberto Salazar humorously observed prior to the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic race, he varied his training from his usual 100 mi (160 km) per week or more on the roads, to running in place in his garage, with his automobile engine running and the door closed, to better imitate the famous Los Angeles smog the runners would encounter on the Olympic race course.
The ability of an athlete to overcome environmental conditions is closely tied to the training concept of acclimatization, which requires a focused training approach concerning a specific condition that an athlete expects to face in an upcoming competition or event. Acclimatization is rooted in the inherent ability of the human body to adapt to its surroundings over time in all circumstances.
Environmental conditions involve one or more different circumstances, as a condition to be faced in regular training or as an anticipated condition that will be encountered at a future time. There are general training principles to be employed to compensate or to overcome each of these environmental conditions; some factors are present in only certain types of sports and therefore demand specialized approaches to their resolution. Environmental conditions include warm weather, cold weather, high altitude, rugged topography, manmade impacts on air quality, wind speed, rain, time zone changes, indoor atmospheric conditions, and crowd noise.
Warm weather, which is often accompanied by high humidity, is likely the most common adverse environmental factor encountered by athletes. Warm weather and humidity are also readily adapted to through a gradual introduction of the body to the unaccustomed heat, through both day-to-day living in the warmer conditions as well as training. Most heat acclimatization programs suggest training at approximately 50% capacity for the first four to seven days of the program. Most athletes will achieve 75% heat acclimatization within 10 days of commencement, with 100% tolerance within 21 days. All heat training requires a careful attention to hydration (the average adult requires a minimum of 1 qt (1l) of fluid replacement per hour in temperatures that exceed 75°F (24°C); heat and humidity will increase the body's production of sweat, released as the cardiovascular system brings blood closer to the surface of the skin for cooling.
Cold weather may be accompanied by snow. Unlike hot weather, which requires the gradual immersion of the athlete into the hostile environment, cold weather conditions require the creation of protective clothing barriers that keep the environment out. Layered clothing, with an inner polypropylene layer that will wick, or direct, perspiration away from the skin of the athlete, is of critical importance. The greater the amount of water at the skin, the lesser the thermal (warming) quality of the skin and the clothing next to it. Training in cold weather is less important to the acclimatization of the body than is warm weather work; cold weather can also present hydration problems, as the energy generated in the activity and fluid lost to perspiration are less apparent but equally impacts the body.
High altitude is technically any altitude where the oxygen available to the body is less than at sea level; altitudes in excess of 6,500 ft (2,000 m) are generally considered to present a significant challenge to peak athletic performance. At this altitude, the body is forced to produce a greater number of erythrocytes (red blood cells) to transport oxygen, to attempt to address the oxygen deficit. Many athletes over a three-month period will develop the physical capacity to achieve a greater oxygen capacity than they could attain at sea level. High-altitude training benefits will be retained by the athlete, in decreasing levels, for between one to three months after the cessation of the high-level training.
Hilly or rugged topography for runners and cyclists—especially those who are accustomed to flat terrain—will require specific training. Hill training is often accomplished through a combination of interval work or the use of stationary exercise machines that permit the athlete to adjust the grade and resistance of the workout.
Manmade impacts on air quality, sometimes in concert with high humidity, are likely impossible to replicate. Training in heat and humidity is believed to be the safest alternative.
Wind speed can present an unsettling element to athletes competing in disciplines where the accustomed techniques may be disturbed by wind. Running, cycling, and ball sports played on wide-open fields that are exposed to the wind are all those that require attention. Even the performance of competitors in a sport such as sailing, where wind is an essential element of propulsion, may be affected if the wind is significantly different than the typical conditions experienced; sailors used to strong winds may struggle with their form and their tactics in light breezes, and vice versa.
Rain, often in combination with wind or other inclement weather, can have a dramatic impact on the tactics and the outcome of almost any outdoor sport. Rain will alter the playing surface of fields, requiring athletes to consider changes in footwear, particularly cleat length. Wet equipment, such as soccer balls and rugby balls, has different physical characteristics than when dry. Overcoming rain, if a condition operating alone, is as much a mental discipline for an athlete as it is a physical one. Other than those athletes who, due to their build (shorter, with a lower center of gravity), may run better on a muddy field—rain is an equalizer. As with cold weather and snow, rain is the factor to be prepared for with appropriate gear.
Time zone changes and daylight saving time impacts can make competition even more difficult. International competition will often necessitate travel through a number of time zones. For a volleyball team based in New York that will be competing in Hawaii, there will be a four-hour time difference; for the cricketer in Bombay preparing to play in England, there is a six-hour difference. The body becomes accustomed to a daily rhythm, sometimes referred to as the body clock, which is connected to sunrise, sunset, and usual patterns of sleep. Travel to a time zone that is a number of hours advanced or behind what the athlete is used to can cause disturbances in performance. The potential impact of a time zone change can be addressed by getting to the venue a number of days in advance of competition.
Indoor atmospheric conditions, including warm and humid, can often be replicated for practice purposes.
Crowd noise is a particular issue when visiting teams travel to a game played at a large indoor or outdoor stadium, where the team cannot hear its own signals. American football, where the quarterback calls a series of signals to teammates prior to the start of a play, is the best example of possible interference through crowd noise. Professional teams often construct large sound systems and direct highly amplified noise at the team to ready them for the sensation of playing in such conditions.
True adaptation to an anticipated environmental condition is only achieved when the athlete is able to succeed in competition conducted with the expected conditions in place. While the physiological factors involved in taking the muscle, thermoregulatory, and cardiovascular systems to a state of readiness for a race in a different environment are the chief aspect of such training, the ability of the race day athlete to "tough it out" in adverse conditions is a hallmark of the champion.