Don't Avoid the Heat, Train In It
We've had an interesting weather year in the OCR community. At the Spartan Big Bear Beast and Sprint weekend, racers endured high sun exposure and heat on Saturday, but then woke up to a snowstorm and 30 degrees on Sunday. Spartan Fayetteville racers were warned of high heat advisories on the same weekend where Spartan Ohio racers were trudging through the mud from excessive rain all week. We never know what Mother Nature is about to throw at us.
When most people think about Spartan Palmerton, one thing they can always count on is heat and humidity. The Northeast summer weather is unbearable in July and, while most people are opting for days at the shore or hanging out in the air conditioning, us crazy Spartans are crawling up a double black diamond in the scorching heat for a finishers medal and an ice cold beer. A handful of Spartans don't make it to that beer line, though; they end up in the medical tent instead.
Minnesota State University, Mankato - a school that has produced sports greats such as Adam Thielen and David Backes; they’re the home of both Minnesota Vikings and Minnesota Timberwolves pre-season training; and unfortunately, they were the scene of Korey Stringer’s tragic death.
Korey Stringer was a Minnesota Viking’s Offensive Tackle who suffered heat stroke on July 31, 2001. The temperature at training camp was 91 degrees fahrenheit and Korey’s core temperature ultimately reached 108 degrees. He passed away the next day due to complications from heat illness in Mankato, Minnesota. As a proud alumnus of Minnesota State University, Mankato’s Athletic Training program, heat illness was always a main focus of our education, particularly because of the events that led to Korey Stringer’s death.
Thinking back to my first trip to Palmerton, Pennsylvania in 2017, I remember the sheer agony I was in. This was my first real mountain race, the temperatures were up into the 90s, and despite my educational base on heat illness, I was NOT prepared. I have suffered from heat-related conditions for as long as I can remember. Headaches, difficulty breathing, dizziness, they were all normal to me, particularly in the heat. I came off the course in Palmerton vowing to never return, so it’s only natural that I made sure to prioritize Palmerton on my race calendar in 2018.
Leading into the 2018 Palmerton race, I anticipated the suck. I was running in Spartan’s Age Group division which meant not only was I going to climb up and down double black diamonds, but I had to face the elusive double sandbag carry. This one was going to hurt. But in planning for the suck, I dug back into my Athletic Training knowledge and prioritized the one training aspect that I was missing, acclimatization.
Acclimatization is training the body’s ability to cope with heat exposure. It requires a complex series of changes or adaptations that occur in response to heat stress in a natural environment over the course of 7-14 days. In layman’s terms, this means you have to gradually increase your training in conditions similar to what you will be facing over the course of 2 weeks prior to an event.
Having lived between the midwest and the northeast for my entire life, I am used to the schizophrenic weather. I graduated college in May in a snowstorm, but have also gone for a run on Christmas Day and New Years in shorts and a t-shirt. I have long thought that I can cope with any weather that is thrown at me. But here in the Northeast, our summer days can get wicked hot, the humidity is horrendous and allergies smack you in the face. No matter how unpredictable the weather is, nobody is ever truly prepared for a hot race without training specifically for a hot race.
So heading back to Palmerton 2018, I prepared myself. I ran outside in the mid point of the day, I spent rest days in the sun at the beach, and I increased my conditioning. I went into the race hating the Blue Hills Resort with every fiber of my being, and walked away with a 3rd place finish and a newfound respect for the mountain.
With Spartan Palmerton looming in just a few short weeks, it’s time to start to prepare ourselves once again for that dreaded climb. There will be sun, there will be heat, and there will be people facing the early stages of heat illness. Will you be one of them?
My intentions with this blog is not to scare you into thinking that heat illness will happen, but rather to warn you of the signs and symptoms of heat illness, and to prepare you to be able to handle the hot climates. Whether you’re traveling to Palmerton or Asheville in July, you’re preparing for Boston or West Virginia in August, or you’re just trying to endure the summer months while maintaining your active lifestyle, you can take away some of these training tips to keep you safe in the heat.
Before we jump right into training on how to beat the heat (how cliche, right?!), let’s first get a brief overview of what exactly heat illness is. There are two serious types of heat illness; heat exhaustion and heat stroke.
As per MedlinePlus, Heat Exhaustion can happen after several days of exposure to heat with the combination of dehydration/ not enough fluids in your body. People who experience heat exhaustion commonly experience heavy sweating, rapid breathing, and a fast, but weak pulse. Heat Exhaustion can progress into Heat Stroke with continued exposure to heat, activity, and lack of fluid.
Heat Stroke is a life-threatening condition in which one’s body temperature is elevated to 106 degrees fahrenheit or above. Individuals experiencing heat stroke will exhibit dry skin where sweating is no longer possible, a rapid and strong pulse, dizziness, nausea, and confusion. Rapid cooling needs to be initiated immediately.
When discussing how to become acclimatized for events in hot climates, there are a few factors that need to be considered. Firstly, a well-conditioned, aerobically fit athlete will always require less time to acclimatize than someone who has not been adequately trained leading into the warm months. Make sure to increase your aerobic conditioning prior to committing to an event in the summer/ hot months. Secondly, do not discredit an adequate rest and nutrition schedule. Get proper sleep and make sure you are not skipping meals.
Now let’s dive into some training tips and considerations:
Progress your exercise time and intensity slowly during your acclimatization period leading up to a race. Schedule out your workouts 2-3 weeks ahead of time and commit to training in the heat. When in doubt, always plan to acclimatize over a longer period of time rather than trying to cram it in the week leading up to a race.
Never train for more than 3 hours in exposed heat. Ideally, your body needs 90 minutes of heat exposure daily for a minimum of 1-2 weeks to become adequately acclimatized.
When engaging in multiple training sessions in the day (ex: strength and cardio), allow your body a minimum of 3 hours in between for proper rest. This will allow your body temperature to decrease safely and will give you time to replace lost fluids and electrolytes.
Train in climates similar to that in which you’ll be racing in. If historically, a race is ran in 80 degrees and humidity, you should be training in something of the similar. You should be increasing up to this, though. Do not anticipate your first acclimatization workout to be done at race condition. Also, *DO NOT train in unusually hot temperatures.*
When warming up and taking breaks, find a shaded area to prevent your body from getting unnecessarily overheated.
Wear light, moisture-wicking clothes.
Remember, if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it. Acclimatization requires frequent training when leading up to a race. If you skip a few days during your protocol, your body will lose the benefits. Schedule your acclimatization training!
While your training plays a huge role in acclimatization, your hydration is a key factor in preventing heat illness. Follow these hydration tips when preparing for your next race:
Drink before you are thirsty and drink often. You should be getting 8 ounces of fluids every 15 minutes.
Make sure to replace the fluids lost after training.
Electrolytes are key. Add in sports beverages and natural electrolytes throughout the day. Acclimatization improves your electrolyte retention so there is less electrolytes loss during exercise as you become more accustomed to the heat.
Monitor your urine color. Lighter urine means you are more hydrated.
Heat illness is a serious issue, especially during the summer months. As the heat and the sun gets more prominent, the way you are training for the heat becomes more important. Ensure you are staying safe in the hot months by monitoring your acclimatization training and by staying well hydrated. Remember, don’t avoid the heat this summer, train for the heat.