Heat running can be super uncomfortable – whether you are a total newbie or you are Shalane Flanagan or Meb Keflezighi. Your body will eventually acclimate to running in the sultry summer weather, but even then, you'll still need to get through those extra-soupy days, when the dew point, humidity and temperature all conspire to create a triple whammy of hell-fire conditions.
If you live in a climate that experiences 4 seasons like my city, Philadelphia, take heart. This is only temporary. Running in the summer swelter increases your capacity to appreciate those crisp fall mornings. And the good news is, studies show that heat training can be just as beneficial to runners as altitude training – good news for those of us at sea level. (Philly may not have mountains, but we do have almost-tropical summer weather.) Heat training increases your blood plasma volume, just as altitude training does, leading to improved cardiovascular fitness.
Here are a few tricks that have helped me get through some extremely hot summer runs and races:
- Carry a wet washcloth. Find the thinnest washcloth you have, wet it, then wring it out. As you run, use it to mop your brow and wipe away the sweat. You can rewet it at fountains or using water from your bottle. If it's dangerously hot, you can saturate the washcloth with water and then squeeze it out over your head, creating a cooling mini shower. It's not much of a bother to carry. This tip has gotten me through some hellish long runs and races. I've used a wet washcloth during the hottest race I've ever run – the Mayor's Cup and the ODDysey Half Marathon, a famously hot and hilly race.
- Hydrate not only during your run, but more importantly, before your run. You can easily become dehydrated during the summer heat just by going about your normal daily activities, so you need to make sure the tank is full before you take off on your run. I envy those people who can effortlessly chug down liters of water over the course of 24 hours. (This is a case of "do as I say. not as I do." I'll be the first to admit that I should drink more water throughout the day. I must be part camel, because I rarely feel thirsty. I'm working on it.)
- Freeze your water or sports drink the night before. I prefer to run without a hydration belt or bottle whenever I can, because its lighter and easier. But if it's hot enough that I must carry water, I freeze my Nuun Pink Lemonade in plastic bottles the night before so that the liquid stays colder longer.
- When running long, bring a gel – or two or three. You need more carbs when running in the heat, so bring a gel even if you normally don't take them on your long runs. It can make the difference between suffering and getting through your run. It's best to take gels with water so they are more readily absorbed. Sometimes, you almost immediately feel the "perk up."
- Bring money for emergency hydration. A few dollars weigh next to nothing in your back pocket. If you are running in an area with no fountains, it's better to be safe than sorry and to be able to pop into a convenience store to buy a bottle of water.
- Wear as little as possible. When it's above 70 degrees, my running "uniform" consists of a running bra, thin running shorts and lately, a headband to keep the sweat out of my eyes. Everyone has their own comfort and confidence level regarding running attire, and you should absolutely wear what you are comfortable with. But still, I can't help but cringe when I see hoards of women (and some men) on the running path wearing too much clothing for the weather. When it's 70 degrees out, watching a lady struggle through her run in tight, black, sun-soaking capri pants and a short-sleeved shirt just about sends me into heat exhaustion by proxy. First, no one really cares what you look like on the running path. Breaking news: even – gasp!– celebrities have cellulite. If you trying to "cover" something up because you lack confidence, you may be doing so at your own expense. If you wear lighter, shorter clothing, I can almost guarantee that you will run faster and feel more comfortable. And we all clean up nicely.
- Visors are better than sunglasses. Sunglasses get sweaty, steamy and smeared during summer runs, and they feel like they are trapping in heat. If it's sunny out, I've taken to wearing a visor instead of sunglasses. Visors let the air circulate around your head, keeping the sun out of your eyes while keeping you cooler. As an added bonus, many running visors are lined with terry cloth, doubling as sweatbands. I have an old visor from RoadRunnerSports that has ventilation holes cut in the plastic visor band, making it even cooler.
- If you are driving, bring a towel. The last thing you want to do after a long, sweaty run is to step inside your car covered in perspiration. If I'm driving to the running path, I wipe down with a towel before getting in my car. I also place the towel on my seat when I drive home so I don't ruin the upholstery. Cleaning up with these body wipes also works, especially if you have to run errands or meet people right after your run.
- Make stops if you must. Mama Nature is always in charge, whether you are a newbie runner or an elite. Everyone has to learn to navigate the elements. Depending on the conditions and what you're training for, sometimes, you just need to stop in the shade, sip some water and collect yourself. If taking a 2-minute break means you will be able to finish your 15-miler, then take that break. You are lapping everyone who is laying on the couch in the air conditioning.
- Adjust your pace and your expectations. The heat and humidity affect your performance. Again, this is something that everyone deals with – both newbies and elites. The important thing is to be consistent – to just get out there and put in the effort. Yesterday, for example, when I went out for my 14-mile long run at 6AM, it was 70 degrees with 90% humidity. (Welcome to Philadelphia!) I was scheduled to run 12 easy miles (8:40 pace) with the last 15 minutes at tempo, which is usually for me, around 7:30ish. My easy pace was about 6 seconds slower than usual because of the heat. I thought about skipping the tempo portion, but then decided to do it by feel, without looking at my Garmin. So I ran one tempo mile at around 8:00 and the last one at 7:49 and they felt hard. Were they they perkiest, fastest tempo miles I've ever run? No, but the point is, on that hot and humid day, the tempo miles were much faster than my easy miles. They got my heart rate up and they challenged me to push on, even when my body and brain were tired.
One last thing: when the weather is sweltering, please leave your dogs at home. If you feel hot when you run, think about how hot you'd feel while running in a fur coat.
What are your tips for training in the heat?