Weather causes the cancellation or postponement of thousands of sporting events every year. In Tornado Alley, we are particularly vulnerable to sudden thunderstorms, lightning and ominous funnel clouds. Lightning kills about 100 annually and injures more than 1,000.

Lightning and sports; what do you know?

T or F?

1. Lightning never strikes in the same place twice.

2. Golfer Lee Trevino has been struck by lightning three times.

3. Thunder can usually be heard when it is within 8-10 miles.

Lightning is the greatest natural environmental threat to outdoor athletes. There are 25 million cloud-to-ground lightning strikes in the United States annually. Most lightning injuries occur from June to September. More than 80 percent occur between 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. Injuries are not typically suffered from a direct strike, but rather from electrical current traveling on the ground after a direct strike, or “side flash.”

Although lightning injuries are “electrical injuries” they are not the same as high-voltage electrical injuries from power lines. Lightning tends to flash over a body, typically causing superficial burns and less often resulting in deep organ injury. Most immediate deaths are due to cardiac arrest. The water around a person who has been struck by lightning is not electrically charged so there is no danger of electrocution to those rendering assistance.

Outdoor sporting events spanning hundreds of acres, such as golf courses or miles, such as obstacle course races and triathlons can be especially dangerous. Athletes and spectators may be far from their cars or fixed buildings. Seeking shelter in such circumstances can be challenging. The National Weather Service recommends avoiding trees, water and open fields. Getting into a fixed shelter or car is best. Picnic shelters are not optimal because they do not have walls. Experts recommend avoiding being near tall objects as they act as lightning rods. Gathering under metal bleachers is a really bad idea as they are often the tallest or one of the tallest structures around. And they are metal! Crouching under a smaller tree or brush, is much safer. Lying flat makes you a larger target for the electrical current.

Water sports are particularly risky during electrical storms because of the logistics of evacuation. Lifeguards are trained to evacuate a pool or lake at first sign of electrical storm. Biking is dangerous because we are sitting on metal which lightning loves. Experts advise getting off of the bike and taking aforementioned actions for shelter and safety. Golf clubs can act as lightning rods. Head for the 19th hole.

The time between the flash of lightning and roar of thunder can be used to estimate the distance to lightning. This “flash-to-bang” approach to determining distance is fairly accurate. Sound travels 1 mile in 5 seconds. By counting from the flash to the bang, distance to the lightning storm can be estimated. This can also be used to determine if the storm is approaching or leaving.

The “30/30 Rule” offers a guide for storm safety. If thunder occurs within 30 seconds of lightning flash (6 miles), seek shelter. Lightning can strike from several miles away. Stay safe until 30 minutes after the last thunder roar. Then resume activity. There have been reports of strikes during clear skies from storms several miles away.

There are two sayings in sports medicine, which provide guidance for when to stop an activity. “When you hear it (thunder) clear it (evacuate the area)” and “If you see it (lightning) flee it (evacuate).” These are, literally, words to live by. To learn more, contact the National Weather Service at

Answers: 1. F; 2. T; 3. T.

Dr. Lori Boyajian-O’Neill can be contacted at