Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Heat is On!

I live in the Memphis-metro area and we are in the middle of summer. That means daily temperatures of 90 F or greater, morning humidity of 95-100% and heat indexes topping out at 110 F or more! This can be normal for multiple parts of the US and many areas around the world during summer. Some professionals try to travel to “better” training areas during times of “less-than-ideal” training weather. However, for most age-groupers and even pros, this is not really an option and hot weather is just something we as athletes have to learn to deal with.

Heat stress is real. The body can adapt over time to a certain extent, but in general, you can never expect quite the same performance out of your body during times of extreme heat as you would during more moderate temperatures and/or humidity. In order to continue training safely, you may need to adapt your workouts.

Recently I had a key run workout at the track in my build-up to the USA Triathlon Age-Group National Championships. The workout consisted of:

  • 20-minute warm-up with some drills and strides
  • 12x 1000m starting just above, and bringing it down to just below 6:00/mile pace on a 6:00 send-off (This equates to about my open 10k pace. I would finish each at about 3:45 per kilometer, then walk and/or jog 200m and rest on the remaining balance of time)
  • 10-minute or so, easy cooldown.

Now this was going to be a challenging workout in the best of circumstances, but that day I was even luckier and was confronted with full sun, almost no wind, very high humidity, and a heat index of 96 F at the start and 106 F by the time I finished. In the end, I hit all my interval times starting at the 3:51-3:41 range. However, in order to do so, I had to adjust some things to account for the heat stress. Below is my workout:

My warmup and drills were broken up by a bathroom break (love morning run workouts!), then I had a short break to take off my shirt (which was already completely soaked), grab a drink and put some ice in my hat. By the second 1k interval, I could tell the heat was not going to allow me to finish the workout exactly as planned. I then broke up my 1km intervals by doing three on the 6:00 send-off, taking additional break time, drinking and pouring ice-water on my neck and face while sitting on my cooler, then when ready to go, I did two on the planned send-off, another break, then one more. I then took a solid recovery break to focus on cooling down and repeated the 3-2-1 pattern. I took enough additional time to shed some of the heat stress I had built up and only went when I was pretty confident I could again hit my pacing.

Was this the “ideal” work/recovery interval for this workout to get the “ideal” physiological stresses? Probably not, but the other option of dropping the pacing to 3:55-4:00 per kilometer and adding 5-10 seconds more rest (5-6% reduction for temperatures) was also not ideal for my situation. One of my limiters is maintaining back-end speed, so hitting the quicker pacing was important to me.

Was this the only way to skin this cat? Certainly not. When the heat gets extreme, or even when the temperature is increasing and you have not had a chance to adapt, there are several things you can do when you have a quality workout scheduled:

  • Consider training indoors on a treadmill or bike trainer.
  • Shorten the intervals, slow the pacing, increase the recovery, or a combination of these.
  • Use alternate cooling strategies such as ice or cold-water (for the workout above I put fresh ice in my hat and sprayed my neck and face with cold water almost every interval, then ran with cubes in my hands about every other interval).
  • Hydrate well (my total time at the track was a tad over two hours and I drank two bottles of sports drink and six bottles of water).
  • Consider supplementing with electrolytes or adding some additional salt to your normal diet (I also had nine salt-pills and two gels during today’s workout).

My session was obviously more of a short-course focused workout. Last summer during my build up to Ironman Boulder, the temps were not much better and I had about a 6-hour brick session scheduled. The workout consisted of:

  • Bike - 30 minute light warmup. Then 3 hours continuous, starting just below goal IM pacing for the first hour, right at goal effort the second hour, then slightly above goal effort for the third hour.
  • Run - 14 miles with rolling hills, slowly building and holding IM effort for the bulk of the run.

Here is how I handled this iron-distance focused brick in the mid-south heat. I drove to my local gym and had all my run fluids and nutrition in a cooler in my car. I then set out and did my ride outside in the elements, keeping an extra bottle of water on board just for spraying on my arms and face. I stopped whenever needed to refill bottles as I never wanted to run out of fluids, and just made sure to make the breaks as quick as possible, getting right back to goal effort. I then finished the ride at the gym, locked up my bike, grabbed my bag, took a quick cool shower, changed into fresh run gear, and then jumped on a treadmill to do the run indoors. I was onto the run in under 10 minutes of “transition” time, then varied the incline of the treadmill every couple miles up to 3%.

So remember, be smart and be alert when training in the heat. If you feel nauseous, light-headed, or stop sweating, call it day. However, you can’t pull the plug on a workout every time it is gonna be hot, otherwise you will never get to train! Consistency is the key to endurance sport, so if you have a workout that is going to be greatly impacted by hot temperatures, don’t be afraid to adapt the workout to get the bulk of the workload in, while still being safe.

Now go get your sweat on!


Jeff got involved with the sport of triathlon after moving to the Memphis area in 2006. He works full time as an airline pilot, and is a dedicated husband and father who understands the realities of mixing training with everyday family life. He is a two-time Age-Group Sprint National Champion, 70.3 Worlds and Kona qualifier and has consistently improved year over year. He has been coaching others to achieve their goals since 2010. You can follow his training and racing blog here.
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