UCI World road Championships in Doha: Dealing with heat stress

A lot of words already have been written about the weather during the world championship cycling in Doha, Qatar. Anoeska Koster from Rabo-Liv appeared to crash her bike due to heat stroke, Chloé Dygert finished while simultaneously vomiting (she later stated that this was not due to the heat but to her “choice of breakfast”) and Chantal Blaak (member of the winning team Boels-Dolman) looked completely cooked after the finish and claimed it was irresponsible:

“I do not think this was responsible.” — Chantal Blaak. Source: screenshot from http://nos.nl/l/2136793

The organisation even put together a document on how to handle the heat, with ‘useful’ comments like “…sufficient hydration prior to and during exercise and in recovery is important for athletes to perform well…” (page 15). (credits to @cyclingpowerlab for bringing this to my attention)

On the other hand, there were no apparent problems during the men’s team time trial and Eddy Merckx got on tape saying “The conditions at the Doha World Championships are not impossible” (source), although as an organiser of the Tour of Qatar he is not completely unbiased. Bobbie Traksel stated on behalf of the UCI Athletes’ Commission on Monday that racing was actually ‘‘responsible’’. All this got me wondering about the the actual heat in Doha and possible thermoregulatory differences between men and women.

Source: http://cycling-passion.com/eddy70-limited-edition-eddy-merckx-cycles/

Let us first take a look at the weather data from Doha at October 9th:

Source: http://forecast.io/#/f/25.2946,51.5194/1476003600

During the women’s and men’s team time trials the temperature was 34°C, wind speed ranged from 10–11km/h and humidity was 36–38%. So although it was indeed very warm it did not seem to be extremely warm. The relatively low humidity compared to European standards even favours heat loss because sweat evaporation is slower in high humidity. However, the lack of wind (especially for a city that is said to be windy) could result in heat build-up on road surfaces and between buildings which does not have to be reflected in the temperature measured by weather stations.

Looking at the weather data does not seem to give us any conclusive answers about the heat and definitely not about different conditions between the women and men. Therefore I decided to take a look at thermoregulatory gender differences. I have to admit I did not exactly read hundreds of papers or am an expert on this subject, but I tried to get an overview of the scientific consensus on this topic. It looks like men and women cope with heat equally well although in slightly different ways. That is assuming comparable body composition. A higher body fat percentage is a disadvantage when getting rid of heat and while both male and female elite athletes are not actually ‘fat', women still have a higher body fat percentage.

In concusion, weather data suggest that the weather conditions for both men and women were very warm but not extremely hot and that differences in the effect of heat stress on men and women could be the result of differences in body composition.

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