Heat Adaptation and What to do when Heat strikes

This year I have had the worst luck with cold temperatures. Little Rock was in the 50s and raining and windy, OPSF 50k was sleet/hail/rain/snow/wind/low 30s the whole time, Zion 100k was snowing at the top of the first mesa and was raining from start to about 2pm with temps in the 40s and 50s, and Ironman Wisconsin 70.3 bike relay this last weekend was raining and upper 50s/low 60s with some wind too! I’ve had a few good races that were quite warm in the past, including Xterra Worlds (87°F/humid), Ironman 70.3 Los Cabos (97°/humid), and a handful of other shorter distance races topping 84°F+. So I wanted to make sure it was warm for ONE race this year!

Just this past week I willing signed up for my first 100 miler. Generally that’s pretty impressive, but I added a little bit of extra insanity to it. I’ve constantly had bad luck this race season with the cold. So I decided on a race where the heat instead is unavoidable and actually is the main challenge of the race: The Habanero Hundred. What’s different about this race? The scene is set just west of Houston, Texas, in the middle of August. Not only that, but it has a start time of high noon. It’s a 6.3 mile course, where you’re never more than 3 miles away from water/aid. I personally feel like this will play to my strengths as I find nothing much worse than doing long loops, and being cold. So how in the world does one prepare properly for the heat? What could be so bad about the heat? Several things, especially for a race with a very high DNF rate because of it.

Heat and humidity sap and drain your energy. Expect a lower pace!

Heat will raise your base heart rate; the hotter it is, the harder your heart has to work.

Heat can cause serious conditions such as: dehydration, heat rash, sun stroke, sunburn, lightheadedness, electrolyte imbalance which can cause cramping and hypo/hypernatremia among other more minor conditions like headache and dizziness.

Why would you want to run in the heat? Because it’s not cold. Also because climate changes and there are seasons for many of us and one in particular called summer. It tends to get hot in many places, with or without humidity factored in. The good news is you can get acclimated to heat and adapt in about 2 weeks time. These adaptations include improved electrolyte management, more effective sweat rates, and better blood flow that helps redirect heat.

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What can you do to prepare? How can you heat adapt? Now keep in mind what I have in mind, is a little in excess, but this is not necessarily over-preparing because upper 90s with humidity is no joke.

You can start off by running in the hottest part of the day and running or working out so that you get your internal temperature up into the low 100s, this can take upwards to 90 minutes of harder work. Sunlight, thick grass, humidity, and pavement will add to the difficulty pushing heat back off from the ground. Frankly, this usually happens gradually and naturally as seasons shift and change, so unless you are training for a race that is hotter than the climate you live in, you probably don’t have to do much more than train in the midday to afternoon. You will adapt in time! Just be careful to gradually build up your time if you haven’t been exposing yourself to more intense temperatures.

Want to get ahead of the curve? Starting early or prepping for warm races or training? Wear extra clothes when it’s not very warm out. Wearing extra layers or layers that don’t breathe as well will trap heat and slow the cooling the skin provides (humidity also does a nice job of this). Be careful as to not overheat. If you suspect this or get dizzy, shed some layers and seek a cooler place.

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Two shirts for this run!

Something else, taking hot-as-you-can-take showers. I feel like this helps prevent heat rash and provides an environment where you can breathe in humidity with a quick out if you get overwhelmed. Another place you can accomplish this in a safe way is in a Sauna where you can spend as much or little time in sessions as needed, although this usually requires a gym membership.

What if, though, you are not prepared for the heat?

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A lot of us go through seasons, winter being a big one, hah, and sometimes mother nature has mood swings, and that swing happens to be during your training or event! Here are some tips on how to manage that:

1. Slow down. Considerably. It is better to slowly chug along than try and reach any planned pace. Take a step back. Your heart has to work so much harder to keep you cool, and will be fighting you. Consider a run-walk that keeps you in check, or if you are already a run-walked, extend your walk intervals or lessen your run pace. Find ways to cool, like agree to walk a bit more in the shade, or slow down further in the shade.

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2. This can help, but don’t expect these things to be available…Ice and wet/cold towels. If you have access to these things, a lot of people find it useful to hold ice in their hands, pour it down their shirt (front/back), or even put them in their hat (if you are wearing one, but in the heat you might want to reconsider since this could potentially trap heat and your head is a place where heat can escape the most). If you are female, putting them in your bra can also help. Wet towels can be placed over the back of the neck, under the shirt against the shoulders, and chest. Once you don’t feel their effect, what I would do is carry them in your hands and let the air cool them a bit and see if that helps. Some ironman events will occasionally have sponges. If you are in an event and they know it will be hot beforehand, try and get a hold of the race director and ask what they will have at aid stations. Pouring cool water over you and over your head can also help relieve some. If it’s humid out, these things may not help as much as evaporative cooling will be lessened the higher the percent humidity.

3. BE AWARE. In the heat, you can hallucinate if it gets bad enough. Stay alert, and if you find that you cannot remember things you need to be doing, especially drinking, you might want to tap out. Play mind games with yourself to keep your brain operating and to have self checks on yourself while out there in the heat.

4. Stay further up on nutrition. Your body is working harder, therefore it is using more. You will sweat more electrolytes out, so staying up on your salt intake is imperative, this INCLUDES water and hydration! Without these resources, you risk cramping up, everywhere. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. If your body is shutting down in a workout because you haven’t been keeping up, you may want to call it a day and restock your body up with the goodies. If you are working out in the heat, bring more than you expect to use, always! Salt? Try some chips, easy to chew and loaded with sodium. I also try and carry an emergency salt chew pack. You can get simple things to carry with you, like a tube of pink salt from Base Salt, or SaltStick chews, or even salt pills! If you sense things are going wrong fast, like within a few minutes, hold some salt in your mouth. It’s faster to get it in your system starting in the mouth than swallowing and waiting for your stomach to absorb it.

5. Your body may not play nice with things you are used to! Like food. Especially in longer workouts or events, people need more than gels and water. Typically you will have your peanut butter and jelly crustables, or your pretzels, or banana, or even clif bar, or what have you. When your body goes into full overdrive in the heat, your already stressed GI track, which yes includes your stomach and stomach acids and muscles, might just go into rejection mode. Treat it more gently if you have this issue or stumble on that you have this issue. Simple sugars found in fruits such as strawberries, grapes, watermelon, peaches, oranges, might be the key. I personally am only able to really get these into my mouth and chew as all other food items disgust me and I literally cannot chew to swallow them. Other things, as old as they tend to get in long events, are chews and gels. Another thing you might consider is drinking your calories. I have used Tailwind with success for instance. This gives you a certain amount of calories per serving, and you can kind of tailor what that serving is since the substance starts as a powder you dissolve in water. Some people have used DrinkMaple, or Infinit nutrition (which I believe is formulated specifically to your needs). I have also used soda during a race, and it’s delicious and if you’re one for caffeine, grab a can and try it out sometime. I hate Coke otherwise, but in races it’s magical. When considering your GI track, keep it simple.

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5. Speaking of caffeine, try not to use it. Some people swear by it and need it. Just keep in mind that caffeine is still a stimulant, and as one, it can raise your heart rate, and in the heat, your heart rate is already going to be elevated, so keep that in mind and be careful!

6. Clothing! Cotton is generally a no-no in the exercise world, as it can cause chaffing, doesn’t really let sweat dry when it clings happily to the cotton fibers, and holds heat against your skin. You can wear less, wear a tank to help disperse heat away from the shoulders and back, or wear very light colored clothing (remember the darker colors tend to absorb the whole sun spectrum!). Wear a visor instead of a hat to help heat escape the head better. Even lightweight socks to help keep the feet from feeling like you’re beating the rubber of your shoes into the hot pavement (or whatever surface you’re on). If you are prone to hot feet, make sure your running shoes breathe as much as you need them to. A good shoe fit includes many things, and this should be one of them. If it’s humid out, consider wearing something around your wrist to help wipe off sweat occasionally.

I hope this little write up has helped someone out there, or was just interesting to read. Let me know if I missed any points or need to clarify! I will always update my write ups here to reflect the best and most current information or fill in the holes!

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