While other, less fortunate parts of the country get another blizzard upside the head, Austin is in the midst of another luxurious (maybe a bit breezy) spring. Sure, our springs are brief, but they are a thing of real beauty. And they should be cherished, reveled in and experienced to the fullest because when it is spring in Austin, surely summer is next. And we all know what that means.
Running in the summer.
Austin summers are hot. But not to worry, they’re also humid. So there’s, you know, that. I’ve never run in an Austin summer that wasn’t ridiculously thick and hot. Once every few years you’ll get that rain that will cool things off 8 or 10 degrees and that helps a bit, but then the rain stops and the humidity returns at levels that cannot even be charted. You know what I’m talking about, the kind of humidity that when you head out to run at 5:30 or 6 in the morning, your shorts are soaked through before you hit the other side of the Mopac footbridge and you’d swear that while you were asleep someone broke into your house and filled your lungs with wet sand. And afterwards, you know it was hot because even the cold shower you dive into afterwards seems to do absolutely nothing to cool you off—you sweat for another hour after.
So what can you do about it? Well, really, nothing. Ok, that’s not entirely true. You’ve got to hydrate. And not just before, during and after runs. You’ve got to be drinking water pretty much all day, sipping here and there; going bigger on the fruits and vegetables; and making sure that you’re getting enough electrolytes. But you knew that, so there isn’t much reason to go over that again, is there?
From my experiences—my own and in observation of those I’ve coached—the summer is really only bad if you think it is bad. Unless you are in a position to live elsewhere until the luxurious month of Austin fall, which is roughly a few days around Thanksgiving, you have to deal with it. So how should you deal with it?
From what I can tell, first and foremost, you have to recalibrate what your idea of discomfort is. You have to decide that you’re going to be ok being really hot and sweaty for a few months. That doesn’t mean that you have to stop complaining about it, because otherwise how would you and your friends entertain yourselves on the runs? If you set out with the right mentality runs will be much more enjoyable.
Second, you have to slow down. Depending on the individual situation, you might be anywhere between 15 seconds and a minute slower per mile, on average. You have to be ok with that too. This is not the time to focus on average paces. This is a really good time to practice running on effort and being as relaxed as possible. It is also an appropriate time to run by time. You’ll be out on the roads or trails longer if you count your mileage, so at least for the first month of the summer, while you’re adapting, go by time. Once your body has become familiar with the energy output the summer run requires you can ease your way back to more familiar distances.
But summer running should not be viewed just as something to endure. There are mental and physical benefits to running in the summer as well.
Training through the summer has benefits that can be similar to running at altitude. If you’ve run at altitude before, you know that the lack of oxygen acts like a built-in governor. You simply can’t run as fast for as long, because the oxygen just isn’t there to allow it. You have to slow down. Similarly, in the summer, you can’t run as fast because your body is working at a higher rate to keep from overheating. It isn’t exactly the same thing, though the physiological similarities are there. But the things that seem the most obvious to me are a bit different.
You are forced to relax. At both altitude and in the heat, you have to go slower and there’s really no way to get around that. So in deference to that, you accept that you’ll have to be uncomfortable for longer than normal. And in giving in to the heat, you can relax more. And for many with the type-A thing, that might be a good: You’re less likely to overcook yourself in training. (In the summer, one week of too much too fast and you’re done. When the weather is good, you might have a few weeks before your body says no mas.)
Since you’re preparing for Chicago or NYC or Dallas or whatever, you have to do some actual workouts too, which will require some attention to the body’s feedback. With my training groups, we would approach workouts with a set release valve, so to speak. We needed to do some work, much of which is not possible in the “Big Heat”, so we adapted the training. Depending on the workout, we either slowed down the paces, shortened the distances of the repetitions, increased the recovery, or in the earlier parts of the summer, until we’d adapted, maybe all three.
So a 10x 400, with up to equal time recovery at, say, 5K pace might be 6 or 8x 400. Or it might be at 10K pace. Or maybe we do 8x 400 with a 1:2 recovery if we wanted the paces to remain intact. When we’d do tempo runs and we needed specific race pace percentages, we’d either shorten the distance or we might break up the run with a couple very short recoveries. On the longer race pace tempos, when it is important to practice rhythm and relaxation at a given effort, we’d run the session as written, only taking the watch out of the equation and asking for a focus on effort only. In most cases, the runners would be about 10-15 seconds slower than race pace at the same effort, so we knew what to expect.
Almost invariably, after a summer of training, the fall races would produce better times than the spring races after a winter of similar training.
I can’t say exactly why, but the summer groups were almost always better as a whole. If I were to bet, and I’m not a betting man, it would be because of something that most people don’t often consider when they talk about training. Yeah, they had to slow down more, relax more, but I’m not so sure that is all of it. In the end, distance training is endurance training. You have to endure the training. And as lovely as our fall, winter and spring are, that is a training stimulus that those seasons cannot reproduce. So maybe you can look at the Austin summer as an extended endurance lesson or training session—a way to become stronger, both mentally and physically. And then maybe it won’t be so bad.