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10 Essential Tips for Running and Racing in the Summer Heat

Jul 8, 2013

The warm weather is a great time to kick your running into high gear. But it can also be a challenge when the weather gets hot and humid. Although it may seem like you're slowing down, the heat can make you stronger if you run with it rather than try to beat it.


It takes about two weeks for your body to acclimate to running more efficiently in the warmer weather, and even then it can still be a challenge. Invest the first two weeks of the warm-weather season to running at an easy effort to allow your body time to acclimate and cool itself more easily. Although you'll need to slow down, you'll get in a higher quality workout without taxing your body due to the greater demands of running in the heat. You'll also recover more efficiently so you can keep the momentum flowing through the season.


Avoid the frustration of running by pace, and train to the tune of your body-called effort-based training. Whether with heart-rate training or by your perceived effort (how you feel), effort-based training will allow you to train in the optimal zone on the given day, and avoid overexertion and delayed recovery.

That tempo run may be a 30 to 45 seconds per mile slower in the heat of the summer, but the purpose of the workout isn't to hit a magic pace. The purpose is to train at your threshold effort and train to raise it throughout the season. The body doesn't know pace. It knows effort. And when you ebb and flow with what the day gives you, your training and performance will continue to progress one workout at a time. Your progress may not show via your pace, but it will once the weather breaks, and you race in cooler temperatures.


It can be quite frustrating to see your pace slow as you log the miles and workouts in the summer heat. But every wise workout is preparing you for racing in cooler weather. A few summers ago, I trained through one of Chicago's warmest summers for a staged ultra race in Colorado at 11,000 feet. Although I didn't have a means to train at altitude, training in the heat strengthened my cardiovascular system and allowed me to closely simulate the effort of running at altitude. And it worked.

Heat can be your friend if you train with it rather than try to beat it. When the weather breaks in the fall, you'll have similar advantages as the elite athletes who train at altitude because you'll able to run faster, and the effort level will feel easier. And that's the light at the end of the tunnel.


Although the humidity can be higher in the early morning, the temperatures are lower without the heat of the sun. Get your long runs and quality workouts done in the early morning or evening to avoid the heat of the day. If you have to train mid-day, pick shaded routes and trails, and keep your effort level easy. On heat or ozone alert days, take your workout indoors to a track or treadmill. You'll get in a higher quality workout and avoid the dangers of training in the extreme heat.


When on an out-and-back course, run with the wind on the way out and against the wind on the way back. The wind will help keep your body core temperature cooler as your body heats up in the later miles of the workout.


Wear light-colored, loose fitting clothing to deflect the sun's rays and allow your body to cool itself. Experiment with your apparel based on your climate. The runners in the Badwater 135-mile ultramarathon desert race wear white long sleeve wicking apparel and hats or visors with a tail to block the sun on their neck. Runners who train in humidity wear fewer layers, lots of sunscreen and wicking materials. Visors allow the heat to rise from your head while blocking the sun from your face. UV-rated sunglasses protect your eyes, and water- and sweat-proof sunscreen prevents sunburn. The key is to keep cool any way you can, and find the apparel that works best for you.


For long runs, create a short loop that takes you 30 to 45 minutes to complete, and stow a treasure chest of goodies to keep you cool and happy. This allows for an effective mental strategy, as you're only ever focused on one loop at a time. You can try hiding necessities, such as sports drinks, gels, electrolytes, chafing lube, sunscreen, cool towels and refresh an ice-dana (bandana with ice for your neck), in one spot along your loop so you can replenish. I'll even include a special treat for the later miles that gives me something to look forward to (flavored ice pops). It's a great way to keep your body cool on a long, hot run.


Hydrate too little and you risk dehydration and heat cramps. Over hydrate and you risk diluting electrolytes and developing hyponatremia. Everyone has their own hydration rates and they vary based on the climate, your body, fitness and many other variables.

Tim Noakes, medical doctor, exercise physiologist and author of Waterlogged, recommends hydrating to your thirst and, for distance runners, consuming 60 to 100 grams of sugar per hour (around three gels). Gone are the days where we coached drinking at timed intervals; natural hydration is back in style.


For those of us who already run on the slower side, recommending slowing it down in the heat is an impossible feat. "Any slower and I'll be going backwards," as one of my clients reminds me. If you fall into this category, good for you. This crowd knows how to have fun on the run. Consider altering your long-run strategy to weave in walking intervals. I promise the gods will not strike you down, and you'll run stronger for longer and be much happier at the finish.

Walking every 4 to 5 minutes for 1 to 2 minutes keeps your body core temperature in check, allows you to run with better quality, and reduces the chances of developing heat stress. When the weather breaks, you can increase the ratio (one minute for every 8 to 10 of running,) and race with continuous running or an interval plan. Both are a great way to run strong.


Listen to your body and be aware of the signs and symptoms of heat-related illnesses. Your body cools itself by sweating but as the heat and humidity increase, your body core temperature rises as does the risk for heat-related illness. Here are the signs and symptoms you need to watch out for:

  • Heat Cramps: muscle spasm and pain
  • Heat Exhaustion: heavy sweating; rapid breathing; fast, weak pulse; headache; fatigue and nausea
  • Heat Stroke: rapid pulse, headache, dizziness, disorientation, nausea and vomiting, body-core temperature above 104 degrees.


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