Here’s some good news for rookie runners battling your first round of training in the summer heat: It is possible to effectively train and race during the summer. There are, of course, considerations to be made for running in intense heat. However, as long as you take the right precautions, summer running can actually make you a stronger fall and winter runner.
Experienced runners should take the same precautions as runners who are new to training in the heat, though their bodies can adjust a bit more quickly. This doesn’t mean you can’t start running as soon as the heat rises, but it does mean there will be a longer adjustment period if you are new.
BEFORE YOU START
There is some pre-training involved when it comes to summer running to allow your body to acclimate to the heat. “The word acclimation is key here,” explains Mindy Solkin, founder and head coach of The Running Center. “[The] rule of thumb is that it takes approximately 2–4 weeks of consistent running in the heat and humidity to acclimate to warmer conditions.”
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Before you start training for a summer race, give yourself those 2–4 weeks as ‘pre-training’ to allow you to adjust to the heat and practice properly hydrating and fueling your body. If you start with walking and work your way up to running, you reduce the risk of overheating and help your body adjust to the higher temperatures and sun exposure at a safe pace.
“Beginners have to be careful if he or she works indoors, since they may spend most of their time in air conditioning — versus someone who may spend most of their time outdoors,” adds Tim Neckar, an accomplished ultrarunner and coach. “In this case, new runners need to take a walk/run approach to begin their running programs.”
Working a few weeks of pre-training into your schedule accounts for the required adjustment period and makes your actual training go more smoothly. Additionally, you avoid starting your training in a dehydrated state because you’ve spent time building an adequate hydration routine and therefore reduce the chance of a suffering heat-related illness that can harm your body and derail your training.
STRATEGIES FOR RUNNING IN THE HEAT
Once you’ve slowly acclimated your body to the heat and are ready to begin a regular training routine, there are a few things you should always do when you hit the roads, trails or track.
1. CHOOSE THE RIGHT TIME
If your schedule allows, time your runs to fall during the coolest parts of the day. This not only keeps you out of the sun as much as possible, but also helps keep your core temperature as cool as possible.
“Start your runs very early in the morning — before dawn or late at night — after sunset,” urges Neckar. “Each week, begin your run 10–15 minutes later or earlier than the previous week to gradually get used to the temperature change.”
2. STAY HYDRATED
Even though you are running in cooler parts of the day and avoiding high noon, you still need to drink plenty of fluids and use electrolytes to ensure you are hydrated. Just because the sun isn’t out doesn’t mean you won’t be affected by a heat-related illness.
“Stay well hydrated, but don’t forget to take electrolytes,” notes Bettina Warnholtz, head coach and president of Racelab. “They are as important as water to avoid dehydration and hyponatremia.”
Electrolytes replace the salt your body is losing as you sweat and prevent you from drinking too much water, a condition known as hyponatremia. Summer runners should carry a water bottle or hydration pack to properly fuel and have water on hand in case you overheat.
“My rule of thumb to at least drink half your bodyweight in ounces a day of water, plus an ounce for every minute you exercise — this is per day,” adds Neckar. “If you don’t drink enough, your blood becomes thicker, meaning it is harder for your heart to pump it through your body and thus less efficient.”
3. MONITOR YOUR INTENSITY
Once you’ve worked out the best time of day to run and how to best stay hydrated, you also want to make sure you aren’t running too hard. Your pace in the summer should be slower than your pace at other times of the year, so the summer months are not the time to be trying to win races or set a new PR.
“Summer is the time to slow down,” stresses Warnholtz. “The body needs energy to regulate the core temperature. Any strenuous activity will increase that temperature, resulting in overheating and over-exerting the body.”
4. WEAR MOISTURE-WICKING GEAR
Besides properly hydrating, wearing light and loose clothing is another great way to keep your core temperature as low as possible. Avoid cotton at all costs (this includes socks and hats, as well).
“If you wear cotton, cotton can absorb over twice its weight thus there is no cooling effect on your body,” explains Neckar. “Your clothes can be loose-fitting or compression as long as it is breathable material. Most running apparel, like Under Armour HeatGear, is breathable, cooling and quick to dry when wet.”
Besides these precautions, understanding heat-related illnesses and recognizing their signs and symptoms is key to summer training. If you go out too hard or start feeling light headed, you need to know how to respond.
UNDERSTANDING HEAT ILLNESSES
Solkin shares the story of a client who experienced heat stroke during a race as a precautionary tale:
“I have experience with a runner who I trained who got heat stroke while running in a 10K race,” she says. “He dropped to the ground and the EMTs came and took him to the emergency room where he was packed in ice. Fortunately, he survived, but it was quite serious. Moral of the story? He no longer trains or races in high heat and humidity.”
This story isn’t meant to scare you away from training in the heat, however, it is important to know the very real and serious effects the heat can have on the body. The key is to listen to your body at all times. Should you feel overheated and lightheaded, stop your run immediately.
“When it comes to running in summer, once your body temperature rises, there is no bringing it down during the run once you are committed,” explains Neckar. “If you are beginning to feel weak, don’t push through it. It will only get worse.”
Stopping to find shade and slowly drinking water is imperative. It begins to cool your body and starts the recovery process. Neckar stresses the importance of finding somewhere out of the sun to rest. It could even be a local convenience store or in a training partner’s car. Staying stationary as you cool down is key.
HEAT CRAMPS, EXHAUSTION OR STROKE
Knowing the difference between heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke helps you react correctly depending on your symptoms.
Solkin says heat cramps just affect your muscles and include spasms and profuse sweating due to a loss of electrolytes and build up of lactic acid. In this case, you should drink water, massage the affected area and slow down.
For heat exhaustion, Solkin says you may experience a drop in blood pressure, profuse sweating, dizziness, nausea and possibly fainting. In this case slow down, get into a shaded or air-conditioned area and, if blood pressure drops below 90 systolic, call EMS.
For heat stroke, which is the most dangerous and illustrated in her story above, you need to treat the situation as a medical emergency. Heat stroke causes a high body temperature, lack of sweating and changes to the skin.
“In this case, call EMS,” Solkin stresses. “Rest in a cool place, remove clothing to expose skin to air, apply ice packs or cool water to the groin, underarms and neck (and stop if shivering occurs).”
Knowing the signs and symptoms of these three heat-related illnesses can help you react in the right way or seek help for yourself or others should you begin to feel faint or dizzy. You want to run for many years to come, so keeping yourself and those around you safe is even more of a priority in the summer months.
“The most important thing is to listen to your body and give yourself enough time to adapt,” concludes Warnholtz. “You also need to allow your body to cool itself down. You cannot rush the acclimatization, and you can do a lot of harm if you don’t pay attention to every detail. Patience and being smart is key.”
GEAR UP FOR YOUR NEXT RUN