With the afternoon sun baking the air, the University of Utah football team gets to work.
Almost every practice over the last few weeks has started at 2:30 p.m. and that’s not because it’s a convenient time for Kyle Whittingham.
When Utah opens its season Sept. 3 at the University of Florida, the Utes will be leaving the high desert of Salt Lake City for the infamous late-summer heat and humidity of Gainesville.
How — or better yet — can Utah prepare for what will be an extreme shift in weather ahead of arguably the biggest, most important opener in the history of the program?
“There are some things that we’re putting in place …” Whittingham said before camp started.
To start things off, right at 2:30 p.m., the coach has made sure the Utes are on the field during the hottest part of the day, during the hottest summer ever recorded here. But even that can’t replicate what the Utes might be walking into early next month.
“The thing that I would be truly concerned with would be the humidity,” said Dr. Ben Buchanan, a sports medicine physician with Intermountain Healthcare. “… If they’re practicing up in the mountains, with relatively dry heat, they can dissipate heat a lot easier and a lot faster. Once you get down to Florida and the humidity and that level of sweating, you’re just not able to get it off of you and get cool faster. I would be more cognizant of players and they’re acclimatization.”
Buchanan placed a heavy emphasis on Utah’s ability to acclimatize to the conditions in Gainesville. Full acclimatization would take 1-2 weeks, Buchanan noting that world-class athletes could probably get there in about a week.
Utah’s traveling party does not have one week, or even half that, on the ground in Florida, but there are plans in motion to help mitigate the issues.
For starters, Utah will travel to Florida two days before the game on Sept. 1, instead of the day before the game as is the norm. That means the Utes will have roughly 48 hours of acclimatization ahead of the game.
In fairness, the fact Utah is flying a day early has nothing to do with battling the heat and humidity. Per an athletic department spokesperson, Utah’s standard protocol when playing in the Eastern time zone is to fly two days ahead of the game. Sept. 3 will mark the program’s first game in the Eastern time zone since a 26-10 win at the University of Michigan on Sept. 20, 2014.
“The thing I would say about acclimatization, the physiologic strain induced by the same exercise, the heat stress that you go through, it actually decreases every day,” Buchanan said. “If they’re out working in the heat of Utah, that will confer some advantage, but there’s only so much you can do to mitigate humidity. I don’t know the ins and outs of what their program has and all the details, but if you can recreate an environment where it’s a little more hot and humid than outdoors, you do that appropriately and moderately.”
And it’s humid in The Swamp.
There may not be much difference in the average temperatures of Salt Lake City and Gainesville, but the humidity could very well be a factor.
The average humidity during the month of September in Salt Lake City is 46%, with a given day during that month peaking at a touch of over 60%. Conversely, average humidity in Gainesville in September is 78%, with many days during the month getting up over 80% in recent years.
In attempting to replicate the type of environment his team will see, some practice sessions have taken place inside the Eccles Field House, with the heat cranked up inside the 74,000-square foot facility.
“Well, it’s as effective as we can get it,” Utah defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley said. “It was like anything, with crowd noise that you try and simulate, trying to get it as hot, humid as possible in there. Obviously, you don’t have the sun beating down on you …
“But it’s just making sure they understand you know what that’s going to do to your breath. What that’s going to do in terms of losing fluids, and how you need to hydrate, just doing everything we can again to simulate what they may expect in Gainesville.”
Added Buchanan: “I would encourage that, I think that’s a great idea, and I’m sure they have great doctors and medical staffs there. You don’t want to cause your athletes to have their own heat injuries. You need to be careful, but if they’re doing at least 90 minutes out there, moderate intensity over next week, outside, great, getting used to it. If they could somehow create water, humidity indoors, it can create a better protective effect for athletes when they’re in Florida.”
One potential saving grace for Utah could be the fact that Sept. 3 is scheduled as a 7 p.m. ET kickoff. Hotter temperatures and heavier air than what Salt Lake City sees will still be factors, but to what extent is unknown.
As a point of reference, on Sept. 3, 2021 the Gainesville temperature at 7 p.m. was 83 degrees with 67% humidity. By the time the sun set at 7:50 p.m., the temperature had dropped to 79 degrees, but the humidity had jumped to 77%.
Sunset on Sept. 3 will take place at 7:49 p.m., at which point the first half should be winding down.
“I would say that is a drastic difference,” Buchanan said of the difference between the humidity in Salt Lake City vs Gainesville. “People think 30, 40, 50% or whatever, but your ability to cool and to dissipate sweat in a humid environment is a lot different than if you’re in a dry heat, You can cool off very quickly and not have to work as hard. It takes a lot more stress and internal energy to cool yourself and you’re fighting against the humidity to make that happen.”