Usually I write this column much later in the summer, but the weather has been so dry and hot, I thought now would be more appropriate.
Let me be blunt: running in extreme heat doesn't make you better or tougher than your competition nor does it condition you. Even if you are training for the Western States 100, you need to use some common sense.
Running in extreme conditions is not a source of pride. In fact, it can be a cause of disaster. Even if you are trying to acclimate to the increasingly hotter conditions, your body may sending you warning signals to “back off”. And, even if you survive your run and can brag to your friends that you made it 6 miles in 100-degree weather, chances are your body will take a week to recover. So you lose a week of fitness for one day of bragging rights? How does that help you in “The Long Run”?
Reviewing my notes, I found six tips for when it comes to running in extreme heat and even not-so-extreme heat:
1.) Just say no! Go ahead, avoid the heat. Do your best to run in the early morning hours or after sunset, if you have a lighted running path. If you must run in the afternoon, take to the treadmill. If none of these solutions work for you, find some shade (try trail running) and make it an easy day. If you typically run 7:30 minutes per mile pace, the body will work just as hard running 8 minutes per mile in the heat.
2.) Be prepared. Hydrate, hydrate and then hydrate some more. Drink plenty of water and sports drinks before, during and after your run. In general, you need 8 ounces of fluid for every 20 minutes of continuous exercise.
My favorite piece of advice on this topic: don't make hydrating a special occasion. As runners, we should ALWAYS be well-hydrated. It should be part of our daily routine so that when the really hot days come, our bodies are already adjusted to its needs.
3.) Hyponatremia is real. It is also preventable. When I first wrote about this condition in 2003, it was all the rage because two people had died in the previous year. The panic has subsided as education on the topic has increased.
Hyponatremia occurs when the body takes on too much water, flooding the system. Simply hydrating with water is OK in short runs. But when you run and sweat for extended periods of time, the body sweats out a tremendous amount of salt. By simply rehydrating with water, the body fails to get the nutrients (sodium and chloride) it needs. And the more water you take in, the quicker it flushes out the remaining nutrients.
And therein lies the problem: lesser-educated first-aid workers treat the runner for dehydration by filling the person with more water. The rare instances of hyponatremia has occurred in runners or walkers who have exercised for more than four or five hours. The bottom line: your body needs more than just water because it's not sweating just water. So popular sports drinks and salty snacks play a key role. And remember, make it a daily habit, not just a special occasion.
4.) Know your body. As a runner, you should be keenly aware of your body inside and out. You know when something just isn't right, so heed these warning signs. No one workout is so important that you are forced to recover for several days.
An early warning sign that the body isn't handling the hot conditions well is your effort level. Say you train with a heart rate monitor and you typically are in the 140-145 beats per minute range when running 8-minute miles. If your heart rate is inching up to 155 or 160 when running 8-minute pace, then it's time to back off.
A few more warning signs that your body isn't handling the conditions: headache, chills and cessation of sweating. When you've reached that point, there's nothing to do but call it a day and concentrate on rehydration. The final warning signs are confusion and delirium. If you've gotten to that point (and you wouldn't know it anyway) then you need medical attention.
5.) Prevent what you can. Staying properly hydrated can be a challenge, so don't ingest things that dehydrate you. Caffeine and alcohol naturally dehydrate the body, so limit your intake of those drinks.
6.) Think ahead. Say you've just run a pretty decent time in a 10K road race in tough conditions and you want to celebrate. Then knock back a few sports drinks, eat some chilled fruit and take an ice bath. This beats the usual alternative: a few beers, greasy fair food and laying in the sun.
You may feel euphoric, but your body needs to regenerate. If you want to run at all the next few days, then start preparing for that next run now.
A simple rule for post-race beer: don't drink until you've urinated at least twice after your run. So if you are a beer-lover, you better start drinking sports drinks and water.
As for eating: fruits contains plenty of water and key nutrients the body needs to regenerate. If you include them as part of your regular diet at this time of the year, you are one step ahead.
And the ice bath: Don't laugh until you've tried it!