If you’re not used to running in the heat and humidity, it can be as much of a challenge as the physical effort itself. Heat drains energy and body fluids, and it can also cause serious conditions like heat exhaustion or heatstroke. Plus, the sweltering conditions add yet another mental obstacle. For runners in Alabama, temperatures in the 80s and high humidity arrive by early morning, and can reach 100—or higher!—in the peak of summer.
Due to all of these challenges, it takes extra work and planning to run in the heat, but that doesn’t mean you need to hang up your shoes until cooler weather arrives. The Southeastern trail race schedule heats up with the summer, including races like the appropriately named Hotter ‘N Hell and Ridge to Blazing Ridge races. To get you prepared for a hot summer run, here are a few expert tips that will keep you strong through the finish line.
How the Heat Affects Performance
When you train and race in the summer, the elevated temperatures, humidity, and dew points all add extra layers of complexity to a seemingly simple run. These factors increase your heart rate, decrease blood flow to muscles, and can lead to faster dehydration.
If you’ve ever been on a hot summertime run, you immediately realize you sweat much more than usual. Sweat is the body’s mechanism for trying to cool itself, and humidity adds another challenge. High humidity environments lower the rate of evaporation, making it more difficult for the body to achieve equilibrium. The more you sweat, the harder your body is working to stay cool. In Alabama, heat and humidity go hand in hand, and we rarely experience the dry heat found in Western states.
Running in high heat and humidity makes you dehydrated much quicker than normal due to excessive perspiration. This loss of fluid is one factor in hindering performance. Yet another factor is your body diverting blood to the skin to help keep you cool. More blood and oxygen going to the skin means less going to your muscles, lungs, and heart, causing an increase in heart rate and adding another stressor to your run.
The only way to adapt to the summertime heat is to train in it; running in an air-conditioned gym isn’t an option here. When you run in the heat, the volume of plasma in your blood will increase, and plasma plays a crucial role in regulating body temperature. Increased plasma allows blood to help cool your skin without robbing from the blood supply that carries oxygen to your muscles.
Over several weeks of running in the heat, plasma levels will increase, causing you to sweat more and sooner into your run, helping keeping your heart rate lower when you’re exercising at a given temperature and pace.
To increase your plasma levels and blood volume, you should train consistently. Running for five days a week and varying the intensity will do wonders for your plasma levels, helping the body adapt to the stress of heat as quickly as possible.
Adjusting Your Gear
One of the keys to being safe and comfortable in the heat is to wear clothes that pull moisture away from your skin and allow it to evaporate. This transfer of moisture creates a cooling effect and helps prevent overheating. Clothes that wick moisture are primarily made of synthetic materials, which don’t hold moisture. (Some super-lightweight wool pieces also manage moisture, but wool isn’t a recommended material for running—or any activity, for that matter–in the Alabama heat.) You should also choose lightweight, loose-fitting clothing.
On hot, humid days, avoid clothes made with cotton: These garments will absorb and hold moisture, which prevents evaporative cooling and adds unnecessary weight to your clothes. Also, try to choose pieces that have strategically placed ventilation holes for extra cooling. And don’t overlook taking care of your feet with breathable, moisture-wicking socks.
You can also opt for light colors, which won’t absorb as much sun, as well as clothing that’s pre-treated with sun protection. And don’t forget the accessories: Having a breathable hat at the ready will help keep the sun and perspiration off your eyes and face, while a headband can help control sweat running into your eyes.
If you wait until just before a run to pound water and electrolytes, it’s too late. For your body to withstand the fluid loss that happens during a summer run, you have to drink water throughout the day. For longer distances, you should consider using electrolyte supplements.
To calculate the amount of fluid you need to take in, start with finding out how much you lose during a run. If you’re properly hydrated, your body weight shouldn’t fall more than 3 percent after a run. Weigh yourself without clothing before you run, and then again post-run. If you lost more than 3 percent of your pre-run weight, you need to increase your fluid intake. Experiment with different fluid volumes to see what works for you.
You have several options when to help you stay hydrated while running. For shorter runs, a hand-held bottle with a strap is most convenient, while hydration packs carrying larger amounts of liquid are a better bet for longer runs. If you prefer to drink both water and energy drinks, you might want to wear a belt that holds several small bottles.
So, you’ve properly trained and acclimated yourself to the heat as much as possible, and race day is approaching. For optimum performance, be sure to rest for a couple days before the race and increase your electrolyte intake. Since you’ll get hot quickly during the race, you can also use a cooling towel before starting, and don’t expend too much energy and electrolytes during your warm-up.
Remember that you’ll run a slower pace in hot and humid weather. And knowing that you have properly prepared—and that other runners are also dealing with the conditions—can also provide a much-needed mental boost as you’re pounding out the miles.
After you cross the finish line, be sure to rehydrate quickly, and it’s a good idea to take in some electrolytes, too.
Even if you’re used to running in the heat, you should still know the signs of heat exhaustion and heatstroke. If you ever get dizzy, become nauseated, feel weak, get a headache, notice your heart rate becoming rapid, or become confused, you’re likely suffering from a heat-related injury. Stop running immediately, cool yourself down with water, and get out of the sun as quickly as possible. Replenish your electrolytes and allow your body to rest. Heat exhaustion can develop into heatstroke when your body temperature reaches and exceeds 104 degrees. Heatstroke requires medical attention and is a dangerous situation, but it’s preventable when you take the proper precautions.
In the Southeast, the race schedule heats up in the summer, so it would be a shame to hang up your running shoes and miss the action. But with some prep, practice, and savvy, you can beat the heat—and maybe even the competition.
Written by Hap Pruitt for Matcha in partnership with BCBS of AL and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to email@example.com.