It’s that time of year again when newspapers and running magazines all will have similar headlines that proclaim: “Beat The Heat.” (Runner’s World has the same cover line every summer.)
Good luck with that. Bet none of those folks who write those headlines actually live and run in the summer in Austin, Texas.
Just once I’d like to meet a runner who actually beat Mother Nature at anything, much less than our summer blast furnace that is Central Texas.
I’m here to tell you it can’t be done. Ain’t gonna happen. You go one-on-one with Mother Nature and she wins every damn time. Face it: We live in Texas and even though we have had a record amount of rain, pretty soon it’s going to be, as my friend the former Governor used to term it, “Bad hot”.
Bad hot and running go together about as well as Rick Perry and Barack Obama. They just never played well together. (I’m talking about running now.)
When we run, we generate an incredible amount of body heat (due to increased blood flow). That heat we generate is why we can run comfortably in the winter in cool temps in skimpy shorts. That heat we generate is a major problem in the summer when it’s hot and humid because it inhibits us from getting rid of that body heat.
When running, we produce about 20 degrees of heat. Again, this is a good thing in the winter, but when temps are in the 80s or higher – well, you can do the math.
Runners who are especially susceptible to the Texas heat are heavy, poorly trained and tend to run too fast in races or training runs. Taller runners are more at risk to heat than shorter runners and so are runners who have suffered a heat injury in the past.
Contrary, to what you might have heard, sweating is a good thing. On the other hand, the type of runner who typically suffers the most in the heat, is a poor sweater. That runner doesn’t sweat enough which is bad news because the way we get rid of heat and cooling off is by sweating.
Sweating is our body’s cooling mechanism. When running, the sweat is evaporated off your skin which cools you. But, as the Austin humidity index climbs day by day, the body loses some of its ability to get rid of heat by sweating. Even though you sweat more when it’s humid, the sweat isn’t evaporated as well as when it’s dry. Thus in humid weather, our bodies heats up quicker and it’s harder to run because it doesn’t cool itself very well.
Since it’s much more humid in the morning, it would seem to make sense to run later in the day when it’s hotter but less humid, say noon. Wrong again! Mother Nature stacks the deck against us in the summer because even though it’s less humid at noon (but warmer), the body absorbs the sun’s heat and we also quickly heat up. (As I said, you can’t beat Mother Nature.)
So morning runs suck (because of the humidity) and lunchtime is also brutal (because of the sun). What should we do this summer: Just stop running?
Well no. Simply because we live in Central Texas, we have already done a better job of heat acclimatization than say, someone from Montana who moves here. We can run better here because we live here and are acclimated to the heat and humidity to some extent.
As you get used to running in the heat, your heart rate and body temp adjust (i.e., decrease) and your body learns to cope by sweating more. That’s all good stuff. The more you sweat, the better job your body is doing to cool itself.
But getting used to it takes gradual adaptation. It’s best to take about two weeks to get used to the summer heat by gradually increasing the length and intensity of your runs. There is no other way to get used to the heat, other than building up a tolerance for it.
Once you’ve done that, you’ll retain this tolerance to the heat for as long as you run in the heat. That’s why the first few weeks of our humidity and heat are usually brutal because we’re not quite used to it yet. Over the course of the winter and spring, we have lost our heat tolerance. You lose it about the same rate – two weeks – you acquire it. (Even if you’ve adapted to the heat, if you spend a month in the cool, dry mountain air of New Mexico and then return to Austin in August, you’ll have lost whatever tolerance you acquired.)
Clearly, staying hydrate during the summer is important but it doesn’t help you stay cool on the run. Or even cool you off. It keeps you hydrated; not cool. Nor does dumping water over your head during a race help. It might feel good, but it doesn’t cool you off.
What does work is finishing your runs near a pool or Barton Springs. It’s an especially good way to get your body temp down after a hot summer run. One of my buddies jumps in the Springs before and after every summer run. He believes that cooling his body down before he runs helps him stay cooler. It doesn’t, but the post-run swim certainly helps bring his body temperature down quickly.
It’s impossible to truly beat the summer heat in Austin, but you can adapt to it and try to deal with it in these 10 ways:
1. Run early or run late. It’s extremely humid in the morning, but at least it’s a little cooler and there’s usually a cloud cover. The humidity in the pre-dawn hours can be brutal so you need to be wary because it sneaks up on you a couple miles into your run.
2. Run inside. If you can’t run early or late, the best bet is to run on a treadmill in air conditioned comfort. I know several top runners and triathletes who only use a treadmill during the summer because they can run harder indoors than out.
3. Go easy. Don’t try to bull your way through the summer heat by trying to do your normal mileage at normal training pace. Slow your normal pace right from the beginning, rather than letting the heat force you to slow down.
4. Chill out. Enjoy a break with plenty of easy running. Forget the long runs, intervals and the hard fartlek efforts until at least September.
5. Rest more. If you’re still doing some speed during the summer, give yourself a longer rest interval than normal and don’t push yourself quite as hard. Try running your speed workout on the grass fields at Zilker Park or a football field rather than on the track or road (it’s cooler). Also, give yourself an extra rest day every week. Instead of running, go swim or ride a bike.
6. Wear as little as possible. Any clothing you wear will trap a layer of air next to your body which quickly heats up to your body’s temperature and prevents heat loss. Excessive clothing will only make you hotter. Pack away all sweats, tights, baseball hats and baggy shorts and wear the lightest, technical fabrics you can. Summer is a good time to invest in the best pair of shorts and socks you can find.
7. Hydrate, hydrate and hydrate some more. Before you run, you should be properly hydrated and as soon as you finish, pound some more fluids. Water, Gatorade, Nuun and Powerade are great; the colder the better because you’ll drink more. Soda, coffee, tea and beer are terrible for hydration purposes. Drink all day (keep a water bottle at your desk) and also emphasize fruits such as oranges, strawberries and melons – especially cold watermelon which is every runners’ favorite summer food. (Hint: Summer watermelon season is already here and they are ripe and tasty.)
8. Plan your runs carefully. By that I mean, you want to make certain you know where every drinking fountain in Austin is. You don’t want to find yourself four or five miles from home–overheated and dehydrated. If there aren’t any drinking fountains along your run, make sure you cache sealed water bottles along your route. Or bring some money. When desperate, commandeer the nearest garden hose and drink from that. Or stop a cyclist and beg for some of his water bottle. Sure it’s tacky, but the alternative is worse.
9. Shade and grass. Running in the shade along Lady Bird Lake helps because it’s a little bit cooler out of the direct sunlight. Also running on the grass or dirt trails is cooler than hot asphalt or concrete roads. Heat radiates off the roads, cooking you.
10. Make the local swimming hole your new best friend. Finish your run at a pool. Fortunately, for downtown runners, Barton Springs and Deep Eddy are convenient for a post-run dip. Nothing works better to cool you off.