Updated: Oct 17, 2022
It’s that time of the year again - summer has officially started and with it has come a heat that can make running feel insurmountable.
“I just don’t perform well in the heat” is something I admittedly used to say quite frequently. I truly thought that I would never be able to pull out good performances if it was above 80F. Growing up in Iowa, with extreme humidity and heat indexes frequently above 100F, my training often dwindled in the summer as a result.
Over the past couple of years, I have learned that anyone can perform well in the heat through strategic and careful planning. My first 50-mile race finish happened in 94F+ weather, which helps prove that even cold weather aficionados don’t have to shy away from hot races. Here are some things to consider as the weather warms up:
1. Slow down!
This is key! We simply cannot expect to continue with normal pacing when running in the heat. When it’s hot out, our heart rate will naturally be higher even if RPE (rate of perceived exertion) is kept the same - which basically means you need to slow down to accommodate for the heat. Slowing down is expected and encouraged. Don’t pay attention to your watch if the pace setting gives you any feeling other than pride - go entirely off of effort!
2. Be intentional with heat exposure
We can do everything to avoid the heat, like running early in the morning or late in the evenings, but sometimes, we have no choice but to train in the heat. Embrace that heat and the potential performance benefits that can come along with it! Start off only with easy runs in the heat, and try to keep any key workout sessions during the cooler parts of the day. Over time, you will likely be able to increase efforts in the heat, but still, try to avoid really important workouts in peak heat. Your output will be lower in high heat, which is not the goal of those key speed sessions.
3. Cover up
Cooling products and light-colored gear can make the world of a difference when training in the heat. Hats, sunglasses, ice bandanas (which I’ll discuss further in #4), white arm sleeves, and UPF clothing can help keep body temperature down. These days, you will rarely see me running in the sun without a white hat. Since I have dark hair, the top of my head gets REALLY hot in the sun, even if the temperature isn’t that hot out. Light-colored hats have helped immensely!
4. Ice and cooling sessions
If you have to do a longer session or race in the heat, ice can be key! Putting ice in your hat, a bandana on your neck, vest, sports bra, or in arm sleeves, can immensely help keep your body temperature down. If you are running a trail race, load up on ice at every aid station, and if you have a crew, you can even try wearing an ice vest during your aid station stops.
Hydrate before AND during your runs. Actually, it’s a good idea to stay hydrated on a daily basis, especially in the summer, no matter your activity level, so drink water and electrolyte drinks before activity to avoid dehydration. You can carry water and electrolytes either via a handheld, vest, or waist pack, and drink during your run. Drink early on and often, which can help keep you cool and avoid mid-run dehydration.
6. Bonus: Heat acclimation strategies
If you are looking ahead at a race that you know will be hot, you can boost heat acclimation ahead of time to prepare. It takes about 2-3 weeks to get heat adaptations, sometimes longer depending on your heat exposure. You can intentionally run in the heat or add in 20-30 minutes of sauna after your run every day for a week. These benefits can happen quickly, but also wear off quickly, so after the week of heat focus, you can maintain benefits by running in the heat intentionally or using the sauna just a few days a week. Stop these a few days before an important race since heat can be stressful to the body.
Of course, be aware of the potential for overheating, which can be dangerous. Get approval from a doctor before starting a heat acclimation plan. Always proceed with caution when it comes to any sort of heat training. Ease in very gradually and hydrate!