Having observed runners and multi-sport athletes for some time now, I’ve come to understand something about their behavior when it comes to dealing with racing in hot weather: athletes seem to know that the heat is going to effect their performance, but they don’t really know how to deal with it. In this article, I will try to give you a framework to understand how heat effects you and equip you with a new way of thinking about your game plan for days when the weather gets hot.
I’ve written before about my “Four Hs of Hurt” – Heat, Humidity, Headwinds and Hills. All of these conditions hurt our performance for different reasons. If you’ve read my earlier writing on the subject, I’ve given you some advice about what to do about the heat does to you: it zaps your performance by making you work harder; it requires you to take in greater amounts of fluid to stay hydrated; and it requires you to replace more salt and electrolytes to absorb fluid. Those are the more technical aspects of dealing with heat, but there is a different angle that I want to explore today: how to think about heat as a strategy problem and how to adjust your race tactics to excel in the heat.
Did I just say “excel” in the heat? Yes, I did. I’ll come back to this, but you can actually plan for hot weather and prepare a race strategy that will allow you to do better than those who are unprepared, giving you an advantage on race day.
First let’s think about the heat in a new and different way.
Let’s just say that you’re preparing for a marathon and you plan to run 8 minutes per mile (adjust to your specific pace). You plan out your training and you do all of your goal paced runs up to 18 or 20 miles at your 8 minute pace. You’re planning for a typical marathon course, so you do your training on your favorite local training routes. You’re feeling comfortable with the pace. You’re ready to race.
It’s the week before the race and I tell you that we’ve changed the course and the entire course is going to be uphill. From mile 1 to 26, you’re going to be climbing up a hill at say a 3% incline.
What would you do?
More than likely, after you stopped yelling at me, you would mentally prepare yourself for your uphill run. And you’d KNOW that you’d have to SLOW DOWN. You would know that you could not run your 8 minute pace for 26 miles going uphill, because you hadn’t trained under those conditions. You’d know that you’d have to adjust your game plan, because it’s just plain harder to run uphill than to run on flat terrain.
So now let’s go back to our discussion of heat. Same situation. You’ve done all of your training at 8 minute pace. You’ve done all of your runs in cool temperatures. You’re set for running your race at your 8 minute pace. You’re packing your bags to fly to San Diego for the Rock N Roll Marathon and you look at the ten-day weather forecast and their calling for 80 degree weather with 35% humidity.
This is where the typical runner’s game plan falls apart. Most runners would re-set their expectations, telling themselves that it is going to be harder, that they need to drink more water, and that they need to take in more electrolytes. But do they change their pace goal? Typically the answer is no. Although they know that it will be “harder” on race day, unlike our example of running uphill, they don’t adjust their race strategy in the same way.
The thing is that running uphill and running in the heat are analogous to one another. In both conditions, the body must work harder to generate the same speed. So just as running uphill might require say 20% more effort than running on the flats, running in the heat will require more effort as well. This means that to be successful in the heat, you need to adjust your pace target upward and understand that running slower is EQUAL to running faster in lower temperatures.
In other words, running a 4:00:00 marathon in 85 degree weather is not the same thing as running a 4:00:00 marathon in 55 degree weather. Let’s just say for argument’s sake that the effort level of that change in heat equates to about 1 minute a mile for a particular runner to equal these two efforts out – for this runner that would mean that a 4:26:00 marathon in 85 degree weather would require about the same effort as running a 4:00:00 marathon in 55 degree weather. (This is just an example – 26 miles x 1 minute per mile is 26 minutes.)
Yet, I can not tell you the number of people that have come up to me after a very hot race and said: “my goal was 4:00:00 and I ran 4:26:00, I’m so bummed!” To which I exclaim with glee – “that’s awesome! You hit your goal pace!” and then they look at me with utter confusion.
Here is where you can really excel over your competitors. There are two aspects to this strategic advantage. First, if you live in cool weather and KNOW that you are going to race in hot weather then you could pre-adjust your race goal and train at a pace that will get you there in the hot weather. This is one reason why it is important to take into consideration the likely temperature of a race locale when you select the race and set your pace goals!
For example, if you have selected the Honolulu Marathon and you know that it’s going to be hot and humid, then you could set your race goal for 4:26:00 and TRAIN in cool weather at 4:00:00 pace. This means you’ll be doing your goal pace runs faster than you expect to run at the race itself. Alternately, if you really, really are aiming for (and telling all of your friends that you’re going to run) 4:00:00, then you would need to do your goal pace runs at say 3:34:00 pace in cooler weather to ensure that you can hit your target in the heat. If you think that sounds crazy, then you NOW are starting to understand the problem. Running in the heat takes a greater effort than running in cool weather. So if you think it sounds impossible to prepare at 3:34:00 for a 4:00:00 marathon, then you now understand why it is impossible to train for a 4:00:00 marathon in cool weather and then run a 4:00:00 marathon in hot weather. Are you staying with me?
Again, this is one reason why race selection is so important in setting your race pace goals.
Now there are lots of runners that will simply not be able to handle this mental leap. They will say (and they do say) “Coach I did all my training for a 4:00:00 marathon. I don’t want to WASTE ALL THAT FASTER TRAINING. I want to run my 4:00:00 marathon.” To which the only reply is, “then let’s have you run a marathon in cooler weather and you’ll be just fine!”
There’s a second case that we need to consider as well – that being when the weather is unclear going into the season and it just happens to be hot on race weekend. In early season races this year, such as the ING Atlanta Marathon, the Paris Marathon, the Flora London Marathon and others, there was really no expectation that it would be hot on race day. In speaking with the director of the Atlanta Marathon yesterday, he told me that although it was 80 degrees on race day, it was 26 degrees two weeks later. Heat was not on the radar screen of those runners in planning their seasons. In this case, there is a major strategic advantage that can be gained by simply changing your race game plan going into the race, allowing others NOT to change their plans, and then pounding past them as they wilt in the late miles.
Personally I’ve done this at races like Ironman Arizona, where I modified my pace strategy to take into account the expected 90 degree heat in 2006 and I watched as runners “flamed out” during the run. Was I running slower than I had done my goal paced runs: yes I was. Did I have a good marathon: yes, I did. This is the difference between YOU adjusting your race strategy rather than having THE WEATHER force the change on you at mile 16 or 18. You should always be in control.
Figuring out how much more of an effort the heat extracts from you is difficult. There are some mathematical formulas that suggest how much the effort level as the temperature rise above 55 degrees Fahrenheit. However, converting these forumulas into an adjusted pace target is somewhat more challenging. This is one area where a heart rate monitor can be very valuable. By training with a heart rate monitor in cool weather and ensuring that you keep your heat rate at similar rates in hot weather (slowing your pace accordingly to keep your heart rate down), you should be close to the same effort level.
Tactically speaking, there are some specific items that you can do to handle the heat in addition to adjusting your race strategy that can not be overlooked as well. These include:
– Wearing extremely light-weight clothing that can be soaked with water in aid stations to keep you cool and not cause chaffing. This would include most triathlon gear that is made to be worn wet.
– Covering your head with a light colored vented hat and filling the hat with ice at aid stations if available.
– Wearing arm coolers if you’re biking in a hot weather race like an Ironman.
– Carrying a water-bottle with you so that you have access to fluid whenever you need it, even between aid stations.
– Carrying non-energy electrolyte tablets such as Nuun to put in plain-water to replenish electrolytes even when your stomach can not tolerate any more sweet energy drinks like Gatorade that might be served on the course. (It is critical to keep replenishing electrolytes to stave off dehydration in hot weather and plain water will not help hydrate you if you’ve become feeling sick and can’t tolerate an energy drink.)
Racing in the heat can be uncomfortable, but it is very manageable. If you understand the relationship between the increased effort it takes to run in the heat and you adjust your goal pace accordingly, you can not only be successful in the heat, but you can do better than others in the race. Take advantage of the heat. Manage your pace and thereby manage the heat. You’ll find that you can race anywhere, anytime, if you just control your race, rather than letting the conditions control you.
[I wrote a subsequent article on this topic that you might find interesting. Click here to read about racing in cooler weather after training in the heat.]
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