With temperatures ranging from the mid to high 60s (and low 70s by some accounts) 2016 will go down as a “warm” year for the Boston Marathon. Conditions were nowhere near as furnace-like as in 2004 or 2012, but slow finishing times across the board proved once again that no factor is as debilitating for runners as the heat.
Unfortunately for those of us who like to blame sub-par race performances on global warming, plenty of athletes still manage to perform well in warm weather. Atsede Baysa, the women’s winner at Boston, ran the topographically challenging second half of the race faster than the first, for an impressive come-from-behind victory. In the lead up to the U.S. Olympic Marathon trials in L.A. last February, where temps were in the 70s, Nike Oregon Project coach Alberto Salazar wasn’t worried about Galen Rupp’s chances in his marathon debut. “Galen is a good heat runner,” Salazar told the Oregonian. Rupp validated his coach’s words a few days later, winning the trials by a comfortable margin.
To some extent, being a “good heat runner” is likely just a matter of intelligent preparation. Before he had officially committed to the marathon trials in L.A., Rupp was spotted doing indoor workouts wearing extra layers, leading some to speculate (correctly) that he was prepping for a warm weather race. On race day, Rupp wore an ice vest until minutes before the start to “pre-cool” his core. On a less high-tech note, he also cut holes in his singlet as part of an ad hoc ventilation strategy that might have led an uninformed spectator to assume that the best American distance runner has a serious moth problem.
But perhaps there’s more to running well in hot conditions than sartorial ingenuity.
Dr. Jordan Metzl, a renowned sports medicine physician and multiple marathon and Ironman finisher, said that while sweating is everybody’s (and every body’s) principal cooling mechanism, sweat properties can vary from person to person.
“People’s sweat concentration is different,” Metzl says. “Some people lose more electrolytes. Some people are what we call ‘salty sweaters’–they just lose more salt than their neighbor. If your sweat concentration tends to be more salt rich, you lose more sodium and you need to replace that.” (In case you’re wondering if this is you, a pretty good hint is if you’re one of those people who look like a human deer lick after extended workouts.)
We have yet to see conclusive evidence that “salty sweaters” tend to underperform in hot weather, but logic suggests that this might be the case. Rapid sodium depletion will leave your muscles enervated sooner, and can cause increased risk of cramping during a race.
Beyond sweat content, sweat-rate also differs between individuals. In some cases, athletes who are in really good shape can begin to sweat more quickly and profusely than those who are less fit because, as Metzl puts it, their cooling system is used to working in overdrive. If such athletes were to suddenly compete in far warmer conditions than they are used to training in, a scenario that surely applied to many Boston 2016 runners, the risk of fluid-depletion would be all the higher.
Which brings us to the issue of acclimatization. If you’re a salty sweater, there’s probably not too much you can do about it without asking for trouble. But training in temperature conditions that mirror those expected in competition is an effective (and legal) way to prepare for a warm weather race. For elite endurance athletes, it can be just as crucial as training at altitude.
“What many Olympic athletes will do is they’ll train at altitude until two weeks before the Olympics, to build up red blood cell volume and hemoglobin to have a higher a oxygen carrying capacity,” Metzl says, “Then, two weeks or ten days before the Olympics, they’ll go to a place that has the same high heat and humidity to get that temperature acclimatization which takes a shorter period of time than the altitude acclimatization.”
Of course, amateur athletes rarely have the same opportunities as professionals when it comes to pre-race prep. Since your boss or significant other might not be too thrilled with you going off to Honolulu for a couple weeks before next year’s Boston Marathon, we asked University of Houston cross-country coach Steve Magness for a few practical tips on getting ready to race in the heat.
If you’re traveling to a race where warm weather is expected, getting there a day or two early can make a big difference, since temperature acclimatization happens fairly quickly. If you can help it, don’t make your race be the first time you run in hot weather. “It’s about perception of effort,” says Magness.
Layer Up in Training
Sometimes temps heat up dramatically right before a race, which is what happened in Boston this year, making acclimatization rather tricky. In that case, there’s always what Magness refers to as “the old classic” of throwing on layers of clothes to simulate warm conditions. Magness isn’t a huge fan of this approach, but says it’s better than nothing. And if it’s good enough for Galen Rupp . . .
Hit the Sauna
“There’s been a couple of really fascinating studies that show that sitting in a sauna after a workout for twenty to thirty minutes, even if the workout was in cool conditions, actually helps with heat acclimatization,” says Magness. “It’s almost like you trick your body into thinking you just did a workout in the heat–you get some of the same adaptation.”