When nearing a race, few things can be as disheartening as an extended forecast with temps north of 80 degrees. This is because experienced athletes know that of the many race day challenges, extreme heat presents a unique and dangerous wildcard. This makes adapting your preparation, approach and execution crucial to ensuring you have a successful day.
Athletes have two options to help mitigate the effects of heat – acclimate to it, or make accommodations because of it. Most leverage a combination of both.
To truly acclimate to extreme conditions, experts recommend two full weeks of daily workouts in race conditions. These should last at least an hour each with the exception of the final two days before the race.
While brilliant in theory, this is increasingly infeasible for many athletes who may be traveling for a race, faced with time constraints or finishing a taper. Those athletes may need to get creative and focus their efforts on partial acclimation.
A few best practices include…
- Fake it– Do your best to approximate race day conditions with any of your remaining workouts. This may mean training in layers and indoors to reduce airflow. It may also require the use of a humidifier or dehumidifier.
- Start early and modestly- Any heat training plan should ramp up gradually. Carefully monitor your body’s signals and markedly increase hydration and electrolyte ingestion before and after.
- Change travel plans– If you are traveling for a race, arrive as early as possible. While two weeks may not be an option, even 3-5 days of light training on site can make a huge difference.
Even with proper acclimation, making accommodations for the heat requires changes to every portion of your plan.
- Re-assess your goals – Accept that PR’s in heat are a pipe dream. Redefine success and plan to reduce your pace 10% for the first quarter of the race. Mentally prepare yourself that you may end up even slower than that.
- Significantly increase hydration – It should go without saying, but pre-race hydration is crucial in heat. Your plan should incorporate more than just water. Sports drinks or dietary additives with electrolytes and glucose are also necessary to build up stores in your body.
- Try natural sodium loading – The days of athletes ingesting salt tablets are thankfully behind us, but amping up sodium intake moderately is a good idea the day before the race. Sports drinks and some extra table salt on your dinner the night before can provide more than enough.
- Consider pre-cooling– Reducing your starting core temperature can yield significant benefits. Race day tactics may include a light cool breakfast, a cold shower, a smoothie or cooling vest.
- Obsess about hydration- Liberal use of sports drinks before and during your race is a must.
- Ignore your watch– Make sure you are gauging your pace based on your level effort and not your time. Be diligent about implementing your plan of a 10% reduction in speed at the start. Re-assess this throughout the race.
- Know your limits- Listen carefully to your body and heed any warning signs including excessive or early fatigue, dizziness, lightheadedness or cramping. There is a difference between toughing it out and hurting yourself. Pulling over for a minute or two, walking or even dropping out of a race are preferable (and cheaper) than an ambulance ride.
The Bottom Line
The biggest challenge athletes often face in managing heat on race day involves checking their ego. Endurance athletes are driven, tough and relentless. These are some of the positive attributes that make them successful, but they can also lead to overexertion on a hot day.
Remember, heat isn’t an obstacle to overcome, rather a challenge you must accommodate. When racing in extreme heat an athlete’s most important asset is their adaptability.