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Rick's Corner

Coach’s Corner – Heat

Dan, Eric, Lou, Tim and Melissa lead the pack at the Fulton Run

As I write this, Portland is bracing for a stretch of perfect summer weather…in mid-May.

Taced with such conditions, most Portland runners react by complaining and shifting to early morning or late-evening runs. One of the advantages of living in the Northwest, in fact, is how nicely it cools down at night, making it often possible to do exactly this.

But this ability to dodge the heat during training is also a weakness of Pacific Northwest running because it means you never truly acclimate—a problem when you hit a race under warmer conditions than you’re prepared for.

I’m told by Texas runners (who know a thing or two about heat) that it takes about 10 training runs to acclimate. Exercise physiologists tell me that during this time, your body changes in several ways:

• Blood volume increases, giving you extra fluid to sweat off when you need it.

• Sweat becomes less salty, consering electrolytes.

• You sweat more. This may sound like a waste of fluid, but it means your body is becoming more effective at rapid cooling.

• You start to sweat earlier in warmup. That’s because the body has come to recognize the initial rise in core temperature—not enough in and of itself to trigger a need for cooling—as a precursor of things to come. So it gets a head start by sweating as soon as it gets that initial signal.

Once you’ve adjusted, you may discover that while 80 degrees will never be as comfortable as 55 degrees, it’s really not as bad as you once thought.

It’s still important though to recognize the symptoms of overheating, which you can read about in various medical sources online. Here’s one, http://www.onhealth.com/ways-to-prevent-heat-exhaustion/article-pictures.htm, though it’s advice is the opposite of acclimatization, suggesting that you avoid heat injury by avoiding heat. That’s fine if you never intend to do a summer race, and are willing to sit out the hottest days without training. Otherwise, it’s better to think like a Texan runner or the Midwestern farmers of my youth.

Acclimatization begins by recognizing that heat exists and that you want to take advantage of early season warm days in order to prepare for later, hot ones. In the spring, that’s easy. The first time it’s sunny and 60 degrees we all want outdoors. Maybe we do the same at 65 degrees. But at 70 degrees we start to dodge it.

Instead of dodging heat, though, you want to embrace it. (Up to a point. I wouldn’t advise going for a hard run at the hottest time of the day this Wednesday if it really is 90 degrees. At this time of year, most of us might are probably still struggling to acclimatize to 75 degrees. But you’ll never acclimatize if you don’t run in temperatures that push you slightly beyond your comfort zone. Instead, you’ll find yourself in August, wishing for October.

In addition to stretching your comfort zone by running, you can also reduce your use of air conditioning. This allows you to acclimatize without running. I have air conditioning at home, but sometimes go an entire summer without turning it on. Similarly I rarely turn it on in the car, except maybe for a few minutes if the car’s been sitting in the sun. Such approaches have allowed me to acclimate well enough that when I lived in Sacramento, I was willing to do mile repeats at 102 degrees (so long as I had shade).

What temperatures you can safely tolerate will vary—and in the process of building up, you do need to be careful not to hospitalize yourself with heat stroke! But years ago, one of
Portland’s better runners told me she was terrible in heat. “You’ll have to prove that,” I said, and gave her a version of the acclimatization protocol described above. Ten weeks later, she clipped 40 seconds off her 5K PR…at 87°.

So be careful, but unless you’ve got a medical condition that dictates otherwise, you might view early season warm spells not as obstacles, but as opportunities.


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