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Too Hot? I Think Not: Prepping to Race in the Heat

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You may be familiar with altitude training. Elite athletes often go several thousand feet above sea level to where the air has less oxygen in order to increase their red blood cell count. This helps to maximize oxygen consumption which gives them an advantage when they compete at sea level. This is common practice for many professional athletes. But, have you ever heard of heat training? It’s a somewhat newer concept although yogis have been doing it for some time.

Hot yoga and gyms such as the HotWorx chain, which offers virtual workouts in what is essentially a large sauna, are centered around heat training. Some believe that working out in the heat will increase your metabolism. Although this theory is not fully proven yet, there are some universally recognized benefits to training in the heat. Here are some tips on how to best prepare for your next hot-weather race.

Get Sweaty

Obviously when you exercise in hot temperatures, you will sweat. While not everyone likes the idea of being a heavy sweat-er, sweating can actually help you perform better. If you run in the heat (for about two weeks), your body will learn to expect heat.

This expectation will cause your body to begin sweating sooner than it normally would have. This is our natural cooling system. As the perspiration evaporates from your skin, it cools your body temperature. Sweating sooner can keep you cooler in the long run. (Pun intended.) Your body expects the heat, cools itself from the get go, and enables you to run farther, faster in hotter weather.

Go at High Noon

The sun is the hottest between noon and 3pm. It would, therefore, seem logical to hit the pavement or track early in the morning or late in the evening. This is what most runners do. However, if you’re training to race in hot weather, you better strap on those running shoes at lunch time. Running when the sun is at its peak forces your body to start heat acclimation. You will not want to run far or fast, but doing some training runs in these temperatures will make race day feel like a breeze.

Running in the heat for roughly ten days will increase the plasma volume in your blood. Plasma transports vital elements to your cells. More plasma allows nutrients to flow to your muscles faster and more efficiently. If you legs feel heavy in the heat, it’s because the blood is being used to cool your body temperature. If, however, your body acclimates to heat and sustains more plasma volume, blood can get to those legs and keep them pumping even in high temperatures.

Embrace Your Slow Side

There is a scale known as the “Rate of Perceived Exertion.” This scale (either from 6-20 or 1-10 depending on which model you use) rates how much physical stress, or exertion, you’re putting forth during any given activity. At its simplest, a 1 on the scale is experienced during very light activity and a 10 is during maximum effort. Runners prepping for a race generally hit 2-8 during their training. If you train in the heat, however, you will find that your rate of perceived exertion elevates. Running at a 3 in 50 degrees could feel like you’re at a 5 in 80 degrees.

Shorter, slower runs in the heat can provide similar levels of exertion and exhaustion as longer, faster runs in cooler weather. The best piece of heat training advice I received from a trainer is to give up looking at your pace-per-mile and just run for time. She said 45 minutes of slower mileage in the heat provides the same benefits as 45 minutes of running in cooler weather. So slow down and enjoy the sweat.

Drink Early. Drink Often.

As runners, we all know that we need to hydrate. It is engrained in our heads since our first race. Running in the heat obviously requires more hydration than running in cooler weather since you’re losing more water through sweat. Here are two things to keep in mind when prepping for a hot weather race:

First, you must pre-hydrate. This does not mean drinking right before you race or run. This hydration starts days before an event. You’ll want to increase your water intake up to three days before the big race. Not only should you plan to drink more water than you normally do, you will also have to plan to replace water loss if you drink anything caffeinated or alcoholic during that time. One cup of coffee = two glasses of water. One glass of wine = two glasses of water. You get the idea. To monitor your hydration, you can simply check out the color of your urine. Bright yellow urine means you need to drink more.

Secondarily, you need to up your sodium intake. The body needs to not only hydrate, but it needs to hold on to some of this hydration. Sodium will do this for you. It will also make you want to drink more. If you look at the ingredients of popular sports drinks, you will find that they have a high sodium content. The electrolytes that can be built up and stored during the pre-race days are vital for a hot run. Sports drinks are often too sugary but they can be diluted. I recommend a 3-to-1 ratio of water-to-sports drink as a good rule of thumb. I alternate between drinking this mix and drinking plain water in the days before a hot race. If you need a quick way to up your sodium intake, you can also look into purchasing salt tablets. 

Don’t let the temperature be the deciding factor on if you can sign up for that hot-weather race. If you want to tackle a summer run, there are ways to do it safely. Although running in the heat is strenuous and challenging, if you are prepared for it, you can conquer those miles. And who knows? You may even find that you like the extra challenge.