By: The Mizuno Shoe Guy
It’s that time of year again when newspapers, running magazines and websites all have headlines that proclaim: “Beat The Heat.”
Good luck with that. Bet none of those folks who write those headlines actually live and run through the summer in places like Phoenix, Birmingham, Atlanta, New Orleans or my hometown of Austin, Texas.
Just once I’d like to meet a runner who actually beat Mother Nature at anything, much less the summer steam bath that so many of us face.
I’m here to tell you it can’t be done. Just not gonna happen. You go one-on-one with Mother Nature and she wins every damn time. A friend used to term summer running conditions in Austin as, “Bad hot.”
He’s right–and not just in Texas. Let’s face facts and the undeniable truth is that summer running in much of the country can be awfully tough. The problem is that whenever we run regardless of the season, we produce an incredible amount of body heat (due to increased blood flow). That body heat we generate is why we can run comfortably in the winter in cool temps in skimpy shorts and long sleeves. But in the summer, that same heat we produce is a major problem because the heat and humidity inhibits us from getting rid of that body heat.
How much heat? When running, we produce about 20 degrees of heat. Again, this is a good thing in the winter, but when temps are in the 80s or higher and the heat index is higher…well you can do the math.
Runners who are especially susceptible to summer heat are generally heavier, poorly trained and tend to run too fast in races or training runs. Taller runners are more at risk to heat than shorter runners and so are runners who have suffered a heat injury–overheating–in the past.
Contrary, to what you might have heard, sweating is a good thing. Typically, the type of runner who typically suffers the most in the heat, is a poor sweater. That runner doesn’t sweat enough which is bad news because the way we get rid of heat and cooling off is by sweating.
Sweating is our body’s cooling mechanism. When running, the sweat is evaporated off your skin which cools you. Obviously, we sweat year ’round, but in the summer, as the humidity index climbs, the body loses some of its ability to get rid of heat by sweating. Even though you sweat more when it’s humid, the sweat isn’t evaporated as well as it is when it’s dry. In typical hot, humid summer weather, our bodies heat up quickly but it is more difficult to run as long or as hard because we can’t cool ourselves very well.
Since it’s more humid in the morning during the summer, it would seem to make sense to run later in the day, say noon, when it’s hotter but less humid. Wrong again! Mother Nature stacks the deck against us in the summer because even though it’s less humid at noon (but hotter), the body absorbs the sun’s heat and we also quickly heat up. (As I said, you can’t beat Mother Nature.)
So morning runs are tough (because of the humidity) and lunchtime is also brutal (because of the sun). What should we do this summer: Just stop running?
Well no. If you live in a hot region of the country, you have already done a better job of heat acclimatization than say, someone from Montana. Those of us who live in a hot, humid zone, naturally acclimate to the heat and humidity to some extent.
As you get used to running in the heat, your heart rate and body temp adjust (i.e., decrease) and your body learns to cope by sweating more. That’s all good stuff. The more you sweat, the better job your body is doing to cool itself.
But getting used to it takes gradual adaptation. It’s best to take about two weeks to get used to the summer heat by gradually increasing the length and intensity of your runs. There is no other way to get used to the heat, other than building up a tolerance for it.
Once you’ve done that, you’ll retain this tolerance to the heat for as long as you run in the heat. That’s why the first few weeks of summer humidity and heat are usually tough because we’re not quite used to it yet. Over the course of the winter and spring, we have lost our heat tolerance. You lose it about the same rate—two weeks—as you acquire it. (Even if you’ve adapted to the heat, if you spend a month in the cool, dry mountain air of Colorado and then return to your hot hometown in August, you’ll have lost whatever tolerance you acquired.)
Clearly, staying hydrate during the summer is important but it doesn’t really help you stay cool on the run. Or even cool you off. Drinking on a hot summer run, keeps you hydrated but it doesn’t lower your body temp. Nor does dumping water over your head help. It might feel good, but it doesn’t cool you off.
What does work is finishing your runs near a pool, lake, river or ocean. Jumping into the water is an especially good way to get your body temp down after a hot summer run. What doesn’t work is pre-cooling your body by jumping into a body of water before you run. It won’t help you stay cooler once you start running.
It’s impossible to truly beat the summer heat and humidity, but you can adapt to it and try to deal with it these 12 ways:
1. Run early or run late. It’s extremely humid in the morning, but at least it’s a little cooler and there’s often a cloud cover. The humidity in the pre-dawn hours can be brutal so you need to be wary because it sneaks up on you a couple miles into your run.
2. Run inside. If you can’t run early or late, the best bet is to avoid the worst of the heat and run on a treadmill in air conditioned comfort. I know several top runners and triathletes who only use a treadmill during the summer because they can run harder indoors than out. If the temp is 90 degrees or hotter with a relative humidity of 95 percent, run inside.
3. Go easy. Don’t try to bull your way through the summer heat by trying to do your normal mileage at normal training pace. Slow your pace right from the beginning, rather than letting the heat force you to slow down later. You will generate less heat by running slower.
4. Chill out. Enjoy a break with plenty of easy running in the summer. Forget the long runs, intervals and the hard fartlek efforts until at least September.
5. Rest more. If you’re still doing some speed work during the summer, give yourself a longer rest interval than normal and don’t push yourself quite as hard. Try running your speed workout on a grassy area such as a soccer or a football field (it’s cooler) rather than on the track or road. Also, give yourself an extra rest day every week during the summer. Instead of running, go swim or ride a bike.
6. Wear as little as possible. Any clothing you wear will trap a layer of air next to your body which quickly heats up to your body’s temperature and prevents heat loss. Excessive clothing will only make you hotter. Pack away all sweats, tights, baseball hats, cotton shirts and baggy shorts. Wear the lightest, breathable fabrics you can. Summer is a good time to invest in a top pair of technical shorts and shirt.
7. Hydrate, hydrate and hydrate some more. Before you run, you should be properly hydrated and as soon as you finish, pound some more fluids. Water, Gatorade, Nuun and Powerade are great. The colder the better because you’ll drink more. Soda, coffee, tea and beer are terrible for hydration purposes. Drink all day (keep a water bottle at your desk) and also emphasize watery fruits such as oranges, strawberries and melons—especially cold watermelon which is every runners’ favorite summer food.
8. Check your weight every morning. If your weight has dropped significantly in the past day or two, you’re probably dehydrated. If so, drink enough water, juice or sports drink to bring it back up. (Water weighs 2 ½ pounds per quart.)
9. Check your weight after every long, hot summer run. It is quite common to lose 8-10 pounds after a long summer run. If that’s the case, pound the fluids immediately afterward.
10. Plan your runs carefully. By that I mean, you want to make certain that there are drinking fountains along your planned route and you know exactly where they are. You don’t want to find yourself four or five miles from home–overheated and dehydrated—without water. If there aren’t any drinking fountains along your run, make sure you cache sealed water bottles along your route. Or bring some money. When desperate, commandeer the nearest garden hose and drink from that. Or stop a cyclist and beg for a sip or two from his/her water bottle. Sure it’s tacky, but the alternative is worse.
11. Shade and grass. Running in a shaded area helps because it’s a little bit cooler out of the direct sunlight. Running near a body of water is also generally a bit cooler. Running on the grass or dirt trails is cooler than hot asphalt or concrete roads which radiates the heat, roasting you.
12. Make the local swimming hole your new best friend. Finish your run at a pool, lake, river or ocean and then jump in. Nothing works better to cool you off than a full body dip in cool water.