While the old saying, "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen" makes sense in theory, it isn't very practical for runners trying to maintain physical fitness or achieve race goals during intense summer heat. "Warm-weather running impacts all runners," says Marlene Atwood of Women's 101 Fitness in Alpharetta, Georgia. "Not only do we lose precious body fluids through perspiration, but heat makes us feel like we're working harder than we really are." Striding it out on a treadmill in an air-conditioned gym and running late at night are both options. But if you don't want to relegate yourself to a summer of gym drudgery or little sleep you're going to have to deal with the heat.
Drink to Your Health
"It's imperative to be hydrated when you begin an exercise session," says Jim Rutberg, pro coach at Carmichael Training Systems. "Hydration must occur on an ongoing basis, not just when you exercise." According to Rutberg, most people are somewhat dehydrated at all times; we simply don't drink enough fluids. To improve, Rutberg suggests scheduling water consumption just as you schedule workouts. "Don't water load, but be conscious of consuming enough fluids throughout the day to optimize your hydration level," he says. "Your body will be better able to handle the heat and stress, resulting in a more effective workout."
"Proper hydration should be a lifestyle," says Jen Burn, a cross-country team alumna at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. "If I wake up thirsty that is a sure sign I'm not properly hydrated." Considering the fact that water makes up approximately 60 percent of our body weight, hydrating with cool fluids is a must. When exercising in the heat, aim for 16 to 28 ounces of fluid intake per hour.
It is crucial to stick with your hydration plan once you are exercising. "By the time you feel thirsty, you could have a two percent body-weight water loss, already putting you into the impairment zone," says Steve Born, fueling expert for Hammer Nutrition. While you can sweat up to 3 liters an hour in extreme conditions, the most water your body can take back in the same time period is 1 liter. This means you'll finish extended workouts at a hydration deficit, according to Born, so be prepared to hydrate as part of your recovery.
"When it's hot, you need to salt up," Atwood says. She recommends incorporating an electrolyte-balanced sports drink into your hydration plan. Experiment with different products to find the one that works best for you.
Adapting to the Heat
If you run every day at the same time, no matter the weather, your body is already naturally adjusting to seasonal temperature changes. But for runners beginning a new workout program, increasing mileage or preparing for a hot weather race, they will need to consciously adapt to the heat.
"A huge part of being fit is being heat tolerant," says Chris Kostman, chief adventure officer of AdventureCORPS and race director for the Badwater Ultramarathon, a 135-mile, nonstop running race across Death Valley in the stiffing July heat. Many races in hot weather locales are held in cooler seasons, such as the ING Miami Marathon in January, to reduce the heat risks to athletes. But Kostman holds his race in the hottest place and season on purpose. "If you are holding what is considered one of the world's toughest foot races, you can't tiptoe around Mother Nature," he says. In preparation for scorching sun and temperatures reaching up to 130 degrees, Badwater athletes follow a four-week sauna regimen (available at badwater.com), which allows their bodies to process heat, fluids and sweat more efficiently.
"However, you always have to be cautious in the heat and pay attention to your body, no matter how acclimated you think you are," says Andrew Middleton, assistant coach with McMillan Running. According to Middleton, proper training and knowing your body's abilities and signals are key.
Precautions to Keep You on Pace
If the heat really isn't your thing, run in the morning (usually just before sunrise) for the coolest temperatures of the day. When possible, you can also seek out shady routes for relief from incessant sun. Dress in light-colored, synthetic clothing (to reflect the sun's rays, wick and dry quickly), that fits loose enough to promote airflow. Moving air helps to evaporate sweat and thus maintain body temperature.
"Although counter intuitive, it's important to cover up," Kostman says. Skin is your body's largest organ. Keep it covered to prevent excess absorption of the sun's heat and to prevent sunburns. Not only is sunburn uncomfortable, it inhibits your body's ability to properly sweat and cool. A runner with a loose-fitting shirt is best prepared for the heat. Sunscreen, a hat and sunglasses allow you to make your own shade and provide protection. Plus, constant squinting in the bright sun can give you a headache. And when it's just too hot to function, Burn's go-to workout is running in the pool. "It's a great way to sneak in some extra mileage and switch up your routine without overheating."
Even with proper training and gear, the most important skill is listening to your body and knowing the danger signs of dehydration, heat exhaustion, heat stroke, heat cramps and hyponatremia. If you feel dizzy or lightheaded, are disoriented, have stopped sweating when you know you should be, have goose bumps in hot weather or your skin feels clammy, stop exercising, get out of the sun and seek medical attention.
Despite the challenges, running in hot weather is an important skill to hone. With an ever-ready water bottle, a few weeks to adjust, good common sense and general precautions, you can successfully continue with your fall marathon training program through the dog days of summer.