Football season kicks off with new heat acclimation regulations

LEWISTOWN – Though football practice for Mifflin County High School doesn’t officially start until Monday, the team can be found running heat acclimation practices every evening this week.

The Mifflin County Huskies, and high school football teams across the state, are holding early practices as part of the new heat acclimatization – or acclimation – regulations, developed by the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association, to prevent heat related illness in high school athletes.

“Heat acclimatization has stemmed from a national concern,” said Melissa Mertz, associate executive director at PIAA. “We’ve had 41 high school football heat related deaths since 1995 … We wanted to take a proactive approach in putting a plan into place to help prevent such occurrences.”

The heat acclimation program spans three consecutive days where field time is limited to five hours per day with practices of less than three hours in length. Teams must also have a two hour recovery period between each session.

The new regulations state that full gear is not permitted until day three and there is no player-to-player contact until official practices begin.

“It benefits players by giving their bodies more time to adjust to the level of intensity and fitness that they are expected to be in by game day,” Mertz said. “Why would we put our football players in a position where we expect them to be fully geared and run at full intensity the very first day of practice? The goal is risk minimization.”

It actually takes a whole week for the body to fully acclimate to working out in the heat, said Dr. Matthew McElroy, sports medicine at Geisinger Medical Center. The process helps the body relearn how to tolerate higher temperatures by sweating sooner, increasing oxygen consumption and regulating heart rate.

“When the weather gets warmer, everyone’s body naturally goes through heat acclimation,” McElroy said. “However the concern in sports, especially football, tends to be higher because of all the equipment they wear. An illness or reaction to heat is fairly common in football, weather depending.”

Schools were given a basic list of what to accomplish within the regulations, but were free to design their own program, Mertz said. Acclimation could begin the week before practice or begin the first day of practice.

The Huskies started day one of acclimation on Aug. 7 with warm-ups, agility stations, offensive and defensive drills, conditioning and sprints. Each practice is designed to be a little harder and a little more intense than the day before, Huskies coach George Miskinis said.

“We’re trying to use our time as efficiently as possible,” Miskinis said. “Our trainers are really good with monitoring the players and keeping tabs on the heat index. They make sure the players aren’t wearing too much equipment and are taking enough water breaks.”

Though this is the first year heat acclimation is mandatory, the school has done similar voluntary programs in the past to ensure each player’s health, Miskinis said. The Huskies have no history of losing players to heat related illness, he said.

Official practice begins on Aug. 12 with the Huskies’ first game slated for Aug. 30 at DuBois Area High School.