Fighting fit in the heat

How do the pilots stay in top gear in the heat? Aviation Medical Examiner Dr Thomas Drekonja explains...

Dr Thomas Drekonja

As we head to Abu Dhabi there is a high chance that the Red Bull Air Race pilots will find themselves sitting in a cockpit with temperatures in the mid-30s˚C (and in other locations the potential for 70%+ humidity), which isn't an ideal situation for peak physical performance. Aviation Medical Examiner Dr Thomas Drekonja explains the effects those conditions will have on the pilots, and the best way for them to keep healthy and on form.

When the heat and humidity is high, what effect do the high temperatures have on the pilots?
TD: Heat is definitely a cause of stress that will impair your ability to perform certain functions. At the same time, your loss of water is accompanied by a loss of sodium and potassium. These are ions that are important for all sorts of cellular functions.

So what can the pilots do to make sure they're both safe and able to perform in the heat?
TD: These guys are extremely fit to begin with and have gone through a very intense regiment of physical fitness, which will serve them very well. They'll just have to keep hydrated and at the same time replace the salts and the sugars that they're losing when they're sweating.

What happens when you lose the salts and sugars?
TD: The salt and sugar balance in the blood is a very complicated process in our bodies, and generally we are able to maintain a very steady state over a long period of time. If you keep drying out without replacing them, then you can use a shift in your cellular functions. Early signs can include a feeling of exuberance and a little change in your attitude, and if these salt losses were to continue then you'd find yourself in a situation where you could experience problems with your circulatory systems as well. But we're a long way from that in the Red Bull Air Race, we look after our pilots well! Matthias Dolderer, Michael Goulian and Matt Hall have cooling systems in their race suits – although they only function when they're on the ground.

Would you recommend all pilots wear these cooling suits?
TD: It's an individual choice that the pilot has to make. It's another layer that has to be worn and it can restrict and constrain movement a little and you have to weigh that against the benefits you're getting from them. Although it's a very sophisticated system, it's up to them. 

And finally, your top tips for the pilots on how to stay safe in hot and humid conditions?
TD: The basics are just physical fitness, physical fitness and physical fitness! If you come into this sport without any stamina then you're going to find it very hard – regardless of what kind of cooling system you're wearing, and regardless of what kind of rehydration programme you're on. These guys have got it figured out – it's physical fitness all the way. And if you can find time to get back into a room that's relatively cooled – you don't want to get into a refrigerator or get blasted by air conditioning– and get the stress level down and lose some of the heat off your body, then you can concentrate on the task in hand.