Dealing with the heat

Britain finally seems to have found its summer and a heatwave is predicted over the next few days. This doesn’t bode well for any of us who can’t run early morning or in the evenings when it’s cooler.

There’s no doubt heat, or more importantly humidity can affect your running. While a hot day can be unpleasant, it’s the latter that’s the greater issue because it makes it harder to keep cool. High humidity means there’s high levels of water vapour already in the air and this means the sweat / water on your skin has nowhere to go – it can’t evaporate. So it just sits there and stops you from sweating further which is a key mechanism used by the body for cooling. The heart already works harder, as evidenced by a higher heart-rate, to get more blood flowing to the skin to take away the internal heat which occurs through sweating.

If the body temperature rises too much it can be dangerous. The body usually functions at a temperature of 37-38C but add a couple of degrees to that and it begins to impair muscle function. Get to over 40-41C and you’re in danger of heat exhaustion. Heat exhaustion is problematic and if left untreated it can turn into heaststroke which can be deadly.

I think I suffered heat exhaustion once. I was running at the beach, in the middle of summer, and it was a hot sunny day. The day before I’d done the same route – a ten mile run, five miles out, five miles back and even though it had been hot, I had no issues.

On the second day, I felt fine on the outwards stretch and I seem to recall I had a slight wind in my face which helped me feel cool. Then I turned around and it was hot. Any breeze was now on my back, so I got no benefit and I was running with the sun shining on my front. Where I’d run at 8min/mile on the way out, my 6th mile slowed to 8:30 and I was beginning to feel bad. The 7th slowed further to 9:10 and I took a couple of minutes break, standing in the shade shivering behind a beach hut. My heart-rate wouldn’t drop below 115 even though I was just standing there. I resumed at an easy jog, as I still had three miles to cover to get back to the car, but when the 8th mile came in at a shuffling 9:45 I decided it would be best to walk the rest. I had no further effects that afternoon and the following day I felt fine and was back out running okay.

I’m not quite sure what happened. I’m sure I was a little fatigued from doing the ten mile run the day before although longer sessions were quite common at the time. I may not have eaten or drunk enough before setting out. I find in the hot weather, I am constantly drinking fluids and still underhydrated. One other thing may have been an issue, at one stage of the run I sped up to get past the land train that runs along the prom. This pushed my heart-rate up into the 150s and may have set off a chain of events that I would otherwise have avoided had I just been jogging casually. Whatever caused it, I believe I took the right action by cancelling the session and walking back. Fortunately I’ve never encountered it since.

I’ve always been a big believer in drinking to thirst. Most of the day I have a cup of tea to hand but I don’t force it. When I was more endurance trained and sweated less, I found cups of tea would be half finished. At the moment, with the heat I’m drinking lots of tea and I’m still seeing that I’m underhydrated when I go to the toilet. The colour of your urine is a good indicator – when it’s clear you’re hydrated, when it’s golden or even darker you need to drink more. Even though I don’t noticeably sweat during the day, I’m still losing fluid from the body – water particles will be exhaled in your breathing.

The advice used to be to drink lots before a marathon and to keep drinking throughout. But this became a risk with runners drinking over a litre per hour for 3-4 hours. It could lead to a condition called hyponatremia which can almost ‘drown’ the body’s cells and wash the important minerals out of them. The advice now is to drink to thirst.

Of course if you can do your runs in the early morning or late evening, they’re much more enjoyable. Last Sunday, I did my long run at 5:07am and was home well before 7am. It was cool from start to finish and I still had the rest of the day to enjoy the sunshine.

On other days, I’ve been running in the heat of the day but I don’t mind it. Most of the runs have been for recovery purposes which are deliberately kept slow enough that they don’t cause me to break sweat too much. There is a little but it doesn’t get too uncomfortable. I’ve actually found it’s worse when I arrive home and stop moving. The lack of air circulation causes any sweat to start building up.

The couple of workouts I’ve done in the heat I don’t mind. It’s probably because the intervals aren’t that long and you get a rest afterwards. I believe the real danger of running in the heat comes when you try to hold onto a decent pace for a long time.

If we’re lucky enough to have good weather for the rest of the summer months then it’s worth understanding that it takes around two weeks for the body to get used to the heat. There’s always going to be some degradation in performance because of it until that occurs.

Best advice I can give you is to get out and get used to it. Keep yourself hydrated by drinking to thirst and don’t try to force yourself through anything that feels untoward or out of the ordinary.

Weather to run

I’m a big believer you can train in all weathers. There’s only one thing that stops me and that’s ice, mainly because it’s too easy to get injured but anything else I’m willing to get out there. My resolve has been tested recently with a bitterly cold wind and driving rain alternating for what seems like the past month. But I suspect my body is trying to convince me to have a little break. I certainly don’t recall it being as tough this time last year.

I remember in the first winter after setting up Poole parkrun, I got in the car and its temperature gauge said -6C, or it may even have been -10. Whatever it was, by the time I arrived at the park it had risen to -2 degrees but with no wind it was a calm, still day. Not even a breeze. Wrapped up warm with thick leggings, long sleeve running top, t-shirt over it, plus obligatory hat and gloves it was a surprisingly pleasant morning run. The lack of wind chill made all the difference.

All layered up for a cold morning

At the other extreme I suffered heatstroke one summer. Or at least that’s my self-diagnosis of what happened. I’d planned a ten mile run at the beach on the prom – five miles out, five miles back. The outward leg went well but what I didn’t realise was the breeze on my back was pushing me along. It was intended as an easy-paced run and I found myself ticking along nicely at 7:45/mile but when I turned around the breeze hit me. I immediately began to find running harder. It was the height of summer so it shouldn’t have been a surprise but I’d done the same run the day before without incident. By seven miles I was slowing to nine minute miles and stopped to stand in the shade of a beach hut. Hands on knees, head down, not feeling great and my heart-rate only recovered to 115bpm – a good thirty or forty beats higher than I’d expect. I tried running the eighth mile and could barely struggle along at ten minute mile pace so eventually decided it would be safest walking the last two miles back to the car.

I’ve run in heat before without issue but the temperature registered as 26C which is higher than I’m used to. Normally I avoid running in the heat of the day, I either go early morning or in the evening. There’s no point running at the beach on a sunny day, I’ve tried it and you encounter walkers, the pushchair mafia three or four abreast, dogs on leads, as well as other exercisers running, cycling or roller-blading. It’s too crowded to have an enjoyable session and impossible to do a workout on target.

Running in snow is fine when you’re the first one out there. Sound is dampened, all is quiet and it feels fantastic. But Poole has its own microclimate so snow is a rare thing. In a lifetime of living here I can remember decent snowfalls in only six or seven winters. Most times it’s melted away within a day. I don’t think I saw a decent snowfall from 1993 to 2008; it’s that rare around here. This year the news outlets warned of the second coming of the Beast from the East hitting large parts of the country – the picture below shows the snowfall that hit us. So my snow running experience is limited and certainly never been tried in knee deep drifts.

Typical Bournemouth snowfall!

We did have two days of snowfall in March 2018 although it was barely a foot deep. The first morning was a Saturday so I ran to Poole parkrun and was highly disappointed to find it was called off even though there’d been no notice on the website when I checked at 8am. The great thing about the first day of snow is everything shuts down and no-one else goes out other than to sled, build snowmen or throw snowballs. The fresh snow is easy to run on and the council is good at getting the main roads gritted and cleared. Without traffic, the roads become the perfect track for running on. But the good times rarely last and by the second evening of our snowfall, everything was melting, turning slushy and the pavements packing down, turning to ice. Unfortunately I came a cropper only a few hundred metres from home after running five miles in the morning and five in the evening. I lost my footing and went straight down spread-eagled. I believe that may have been the cause of a groin injury that came on over the next month but I’m not sure as I was running big mileage during that period.

Rain is never fun to run in unless it’s warm rain on a hot summer’s day but that’s pretty rare. Most rain really isn’t that bad to run in. If you look out the window and it’s absolutely pelting down, just wait and it eases off within ten minutes. When it’s not pelting down, it looks worse than the reality of being out in it. Often I’ve looked out pessimistically at a rainy day before stepping out of the backdoor to find it’s not torrid at all.

A few years ago the big man-up phrase was “Skin is waterproof”, but my logic is slightly different – you’re going to get sweaty and shower when you get home so getting wet first doesn’t make much difference. Some like to wrap up with layers and rain jackets to keep from getting too wet. I take the opposite approach – the less wet kit there is clinging and weighing me down, the more enjoyable it stays. It’s easy for wet kit to become cold, uncomfortable kit. On arriving home a pair of shorts and a t-shirt can be thrown on the radiator, and it doesn’t take long to towel off dry.

I remember getting stoned one lunchtime along Baiter Park. I’d started off in bright sunshine in Poole Park but as I came round onto Whitecliff Park ominous black clouds were forming and then the rain came. My biggest concern was getting caught by lightning as I’d have nowhere to hide. But while it never struck, hail did. It only lasted five minutes but it was painful. Stinging with every hit, the wind blowing me back and the rain soaking me through. I found myself running bent over, head turned down to protect my eyes from getting haildashed. It was an occasion when I considered quitting the run but some part of me wouldn’t quit. Anyway what was I going to do? I’d still have had to get back to the car, so I might as well run back. Then just like that, the hail stopped, the rain ended and the clouds parted so I was back to blue skies and sunshine.

Windy days are my least enjoyable. At 6’2” with equivalent reach I bear the brunt of a headwind in a way smaller people will never understand. There’s too much surface area creating drag which in turn slows the pace to a crawl. But it’s the wind on cold days where the wind chill ramps up that have begun to do for me. Leaving the house with leggings, long sleeve top, gloves, hat, even a buff to try and cover up every piece of skin I’m like an Arctic explorer fearing frostbite if any part is left exposed. Captain Oates springs to mind on these days “I am just going outside and may be some time.”

I suffer with cold hands and feet, always have. I’ve even run with two pairs of gloves in the past and had my hands go numb. Feet going numb is something weird I’ve experienced on a few occasions, it’s very disconcerting not being able to feel how your foot is striking the ground. Generally I warm up once the blood gets pumping but if I forget gloves I’m in trouble. One September, I misjudged an unseasonably cold morning. An hour into my long run I’d lost half the feeling in my right hand. Two fingers, a thumb and most of the palm were numb. Returning home I could barely hold the door key and certainly didn’t have the dexterity to unlock it. I had to employ a two-handed, childlike manoeuvre with my palms pressed either side of the key to create enough pressure to turn it. Having gone through the pain of hands getting cold, I then had to endure the pain of them warming back up, tingling as the blood flowed into the constricted veins.

I recently ran at the beach during the cold spell. The wind was 20+ mph and the chill had it feeling like -4C. Sand was whipping across the prom, a danger of getting it in the eyes, and I only managed a mile before turning round. It was meant to be a recovery run so my legs weren’t at their best as it was. By the time I got back to the car, the tips of my fingers were numb, even in gloves, and the layers of clothing weren’t enough to stop me shivering sat back in the car. It reminded me of the Saturday morning two days before my run streak reached a year when it was a howling storm and pitch dark. So close to the goal I had to run but went out in shorts, t-shirt and no gloves; arriving home I was chilled to the bone. I stripped off my wet clothes, put on my dressing gown and went back to bed where it took over half an hour to warm back up.

I never used to be a big reader of weather forecasts. After all if you’ve planned to do something, you can’t control the weather, just get out there and do it. However in recent times, I’ve begun to look at what the weather will be like during the day to see if there’s a best time to run. Should I get out early at 10am, wait until midday or even the evening? Is the wind picking up or dying down as the day goes on, are the chances of rain increasing or decreasing? What is never in question is whether I’ll do a session. I don’t look at the weather forecast and use it to talk myself out of running. I only look at it to see when the best time to run might be. That’s been more applicable with pandemic lockdowns, but once we return to normal and life regains its own schedule the runs will have to be slotted in wherever the rest of life dictates. It’s just a case of making sure I wear the right kit for the conditions.