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Training and Racing in the Heat

This week we have a guest post from George Darden, certified multi-sport coach for ITL Atlanta

Over the last two weeks, I have had several conversations with athletes I coach about running, swimming and cycling in the heat. This year, it seems as if it got really hot really quickly, and even the most seasoned runners and triathletes were caught off guard.

After several months of mild weather, it is easy to forget the basics of hot weather training and racing, and make no mistake: heat profoundly affects what you are able to get your body to do. In the South, sixty degrees feels downright balmy, but you may be up to three percent slower at sixty degrees than you would be at the same effort level at fifty degrees. At eighty degrees, you may be a staggering 15 percent slower. This doesn’t even take into account the way that humidity or being around a lot of other people—ever run the Peachtree Road Race??—can make you hotter and drive up your heartrate.

Because the weather is not within our control, some people are determined to ignore it lest it stress them out on race day. While I understand this approach, it is wiser to acknowledge the reality of hot weather and do what you can to mitigate its effects. Here are my primary suggestions:

--Treat hydration like a full-time job. Most people do a fine job of drinking water and sports drinks during their events. Because liquid is refreshing and most of us have a strong thirst mechanism, you will be able to hold things together in a race as long as you are steadily drinking something that can be absorbed easily. During our training, on the other hand, we struggle more with hydration, and we tend to forget about hydration entirely when we are sitting in our cars, at our desks or in front of the television. As a result, over the course of summer days and weeks, our fluid reserves can become depleted, leaving us with less in the tank when we need it for big training days and races. Remember: when it’s hot outside, your body requires more fluid to simply get through the day. Hydration should therefore be your focus not only immediately prior to your big days but also every day. Get in the habit of having water with you.

--Cool the surface of your skin. While dehydration gets a lot of press, it is only one of the reasons you’re forced to slow down on hot days. In addition to the cascading effects of dehydration, your body must also divert resources to cool your skin when you are working out or competing in the heat, particularly on humid days when sweat is not able to evaporate off of your skin and take heat with it. These resources your body would undoubtedly prefer to use in moving you down the road more quickly, so it can be helpful if you don’t just leave it up to your body to cool itself. Technical fabrics can facilitate the movement of sweat off of your skin and into the air, and what you wear should allow for good air flow. (Contrary to popular belief, color doesn’t really matter, so go ahead and wear your stealthy black kit for your big race.) Water from hoses or cups dumped over your head can have the same cooling effect as sweat, and there’s some evidence to suggest that cooling your head—and by extension, your brain—can delay your body’s shutting down of other systems to prioritize surface cooling. Finally, be mindful of anything you put on the surface of your skin that may interfere with your sweat’s ability to cool you. This includes some sunscreens, but also be aware: sunburned skin doesn’t dissipate heat very well, either.

--Lower your core temperature before you start. Studies have shown that when racing, even in cooler weather, your core temperature can reach levels that normally are only seen in patients with high fevers. As a result, your body becomes less efficient at everything it does, including the fundamental physiological processes that enable you to run, bike and swim. This means that training and racing in the summer will require more energy and will leave you more spent than when you do them in less harsh weather. You can offset some of the temperature increase by lowering your core temperature with cold drinks prior to a workout. In addition, exercise scientists have documented some interesting effects when athletes ate ice prior to their efforts, including the ability to continue performing at higher core temperatures than if they had not ingested something cold before activity.

--Mind your alcohol consumption. No one wants to hear this, particularly in the summer when beer, wine and cocktails seem to flow so much more freely, so let me be clear: you don’t have to quit drinking if you want to be an endurance athlete. However, you must keep in mind that an alcoholic drink—any alcoholic drink—will leave you more dehydrated than you were before you drank it. This can be particularly problematic if you’re celebrating a long, dehydrating workout or race. Piling the dehydrating effects of alcohol on top of the dehydrating effects of training and racing—this isn’t abnormal, as most of us do both our biggest workouts and our most serious partying on the weekends—can take several days to recover from. Get in the habit of drinking water alongside your adult beverages. For every drink you have, drink twelve to sixteen ounces of water. You may not want to be that guy at the party who alternates beer and water, but you also don’t want to be that guy who is still recovering from Saturday night on Wednesday afternoon.

--Adjust your plan and goals. Some folks may find it hard to believe, but I actually spend more time training indoors in the summer than I do in the winter. Between work and kids, I often have to squeeze in a workout in the middle of the day. There is no way I’m doing that workout outside if it’s over ninety degrees. (And here in Atlanta, when it is notover ninety degrees at 2:00 PM in the summer?) Consequently, I find myself unapologetically getting on the treadmill or the trainer if I have a run or bike to complete. I suggest that you do the same. At the very least, if you know that you must train in hot weather, expect to go much more slowly, and plan water stops along the way. If you have a long run or ride, do multiple laps of a short loop so that you can stop by your house or car for supplies frequently. This will also give you the option to bail out early if you start to get into trouble.

Heat can be debilitating, but being smart and finding a way to train during the summer months will be worth it come October when it starts cooling off. If you are smart and safe, you’ll nail your fall targets. Good luck!


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