People often overlook the importance of training their body to be prepared for the heat. This can lead to heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Overlooking the need to prepare your body for heat exposure is a dangerous and even deadly mistake. Temperature on race day is one of several fixed factors that can’t be controlled on race day. Runners of all experience levels are guilty of overlooking these fixed factors and none are more dangerous than heat.
This article will explain how heat training and knowledge will help runners avoid the risk of heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Some factors that contribute to these dangers are temperature variability, when a runner trains, hydration, and a runner’s general understanding of their body’s needs in a run.
Temperature Variability. This refers to the range of the temperature the runner could face on race day. The majority of the risk comes in the spring and fall. These seasons of change are cooler than summer, but pack the potential for relatively extreme heat. (Relatively in the sense that the high temperature one day could easily be 25 degrees above average.) The summer is actually less common for heat exhaustion because runners have trained in the heat and expect it to be hot when they run. However, in the spring and fall, runners often don’t see the hot weather coming. Runs in the midwest are especially prone to variable temperatures and races throughout the region have a history of runners dying at the event. (Chicago Marathon and just yesterday, April 8, 2017, a runner died in the Rock the Parkway Half Marathon in Kansas City.) Knowing you’re running a race in an area or season with highly variable temperatures is the first thing you can do to protect against dangers of heat.
Training Times. Commonly, runners only run at one time during the day (i.e. early morning) and this time of the day isn’t the time when their race will be. This is mostly because we are creatures of habit and have busy schedules which don’t make it easy to run at different times throughout the day. Running in the morning only will allow you to get really good at running in the morning… only. You must run at different times through the day in order to prepare for the full range of temperatures you could face. Running elevation is similar to the temperature: you wouldn’t train on a flat track if your race could be primarily hills. As I prepare for a race in the Spring or Fall I always run after work or in the afternoon on a weekend in order to find the warmest time of the day. Just a short three mile run in the heat while preparing for a half marathon will acclimate your body to heat you could face on race day. You need the stimulus of heat to push your body to the point where your body temperature rises above normal. This “practice run” of pushing your body beyond comfort is key for preparing your body for the worst. It’s like testing a fire extinguisher: if you don’t test it, but rely on it to work when it’s a life or death situation, you won’t be experienced in using it and you won’t truly know how it works.
Hydration. This is a well-known factor but also is often misunderstood. Hydration in preparation for a race begins one week before the race. You must optimize electrolyte and water intake. Too many people think hydration just means drinking water on the run. While this is important, it is less important than the several days before the race. Drinking a gallon (128 ounces) of water a day in the week before any race is important. When you know race day will be hot, you need to bump that up to 1.5 gallons (192 ounces) for two days before the run. Hydration is also important during the run. If it’s going to be warm, you should get a drink at every aid station regardless of your thirst. Everyone knows that by the time you get thirsty it’s too late. You need to anticipate and drink 18-24 ounces of water an hour while running. This will keep you hydrated and ready for whatever comes next.
Experience. In the end this all boils down to a runner’s experience level;; newer runners simply don’t have enough experience to prepare their body for the longer race and harder exertion they will experience in their first race whether it be a 10k, Half Marathon, or Full Marathon. This is a function of base experience and one-size-fits-all training plans. The best way to avoid these two risk factors is to get a customized training plan from a coach who is able to understand you and your goals.
I remember training for my first marathon in 2009. It was a year or two after I started to run. I picked a 16 week training plan which only got me to 22 miles on a long run and really gave me no instruction. In a sense, I was running blind each time I went out for a long run by going a little further each time. This plan left me with IT band injuries, uneducated about how my body worked while running, and I had a heat stroke in the race.
Proper training means going through your training and once you complete a workout you reflect on what you did and how you felt. New runners need to ask more questions about why their body feels a certain way. Unfortunately, we assume these feelings of dizziness and loss of sensory function is a part of your body just being tired. A runner must know what these symptoms mean in order to adapt and optimize their results for the day.
Runners obsess about their PR times and think that since they’re been training harder than they did last time, they should PR on race day. But runners often overlook the race day conditions (the fixed factors such as heat, hills, hydration etc.) which essentially hold veto power over your ability to PR. It’s imperative to recognize these days and adjust your mindset to survive the race and not set unreachable goals.
If this blog could accomplish only one thing, my wish is that it helps people enjoy running more. I watched the runner who died in the 2017 Rock the Parkway as he neared the finish line and I immediately recognized his heat exhaustion. My heart sank when he collapsed at the finish line and people began to provide aid. I can’t help but think he could have survived had he been able to recognize and understand these factors before it was too late.