Don’t Sweat It, You Can Train To Perform In The Heat

Summer is here, and it’s a hot one across the country.  Don’t let the heat beat you up, keep you from having fun or having success.  When we first experience summer’s furry, our bodies are not prepared to run the internal swamp cooler.  As we overheat in those first hot days, our heart rate spikes, efforts are difficult to maintain, we feel wiped out after a minimal workout, and our muscles are more tender than expected afterwards.  However, with a thoughtful training block targeted to stimulate adaptation to heat, we can perform in the summer with minimal ill effects.

Why We Suffer in the Heat; a Little Physiology Lesson

sweat physiology

  • To sweat and cool, blood, which carries heat generated by working muscles, needs to flow to the skin. Blood caries heat generated by working muscles. With blood being diverted from our muscles and heart, power and endurance are diminished.
  • Sweat is comprised of plasma and electrolytes. Increased sweating depletes these resources from the blood, making it thick.  Thick blood (low blood volume) is taxing for the heart to pump, so heart rate increases to sustain the workload.  An endurance pace may feel like a sprint.
  • With less oxygen-carrying blood making it to our muscles, aerobic capacity, the oxygen fueled energy system relied upon for long duration efforts, is decreased and we must rely on carbohydrate-greedy anaerobic metabolism, which is sustainable for only a short duration and is the primary culprit for delayed-onset muscle soreness.
  • With reduced blood volume, VO2 Max is reduced, meaning our bodies are not able to take in as much oxygen. This means that we are less efficient and are putting more stress on our bodies for any exertion.

Fortunately, we are incredible at adapting to heat.  Once adapted, if we continue to train in these conditions a few times a week, we will return to our previous fitness profile.  If we actively work on acclimating to hot conditions, it can be accomplished in 10 – 14 days.

 Hiding in the Cool Will Not Help You Acclimate

 

tubbing
Keep Cool While Adjusting to Hot Environments

 

  • Stay out of air conditioned spaces to adjust to the heat, but do not get hot. Keep cool with a fan, cold showers, dips in a lake, etc.
  • If you can, sleep with the windows open. However, if it is too hot to sleep, use the AC sparingly (set it to the warmest temperature you are comfortable in).
  • Drink as much water as you can, alternating pure water with electrolytes. Avoid/ reduce caffeine and alcohol intake while acclimating as they dehydrate you.
  • Stay out of the sun when not training, and do not get sunburnt! A burn will reduce your ability to sweat.
  • If you are traveling to an environment that is more warm or humid than your home turf, arrive as many days before the event as possible.

Guidelines for Heat Adaptation Training Block

 

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Once Heat Adapted, You Can Be Successful Racing and Training in the Sun

After training for an hour a day for two weeks in peak heat with two rest days in the mix, the body should be adapted.  If we train to exhaustion, overheat, neglect our nutrition, or don’t recover from training sessions, the process will take longer- often much longer and to the detriment of our fitness.

 

  • Pre-cool your body with a cool shower or spending time in an air-conditioned area before you work out.
  • Wear clothes that wick moisture away from your skin. Avoid cotton, tight filling garments, and dark colors.
  • Train through the peak of the heat each day for a short period of time. Heat stress sessions for one hour a day will trigger a physiological response. Increase the time or intensity each day, but do not stay out if you start to feel excessively hot or fatigued.  You want to stimulate your body to adapt to the heat, but if you stress your body too much you will spend your rest time recovering instead of adapting.
  • Ease up. Slow your pace, reduce the time, and decrease the weight/reps if power training.

Maintain Heat Adaptation

  • After this adaptation period, slowly increase duration or intensity of your workouts in the heat.
  • Train for at least one hour, twice a week in the heat to maintain physiological adaptation.
  • Unfortunately, it only takes 5-7 days to lose heat adaptation.

Train to Refuel and Rehydrate in the Heat

electrolytes
Some of the Electrolyte Products in my Pantry

When it’s hot, our appetites are suppressed, and drinking feels like a chore.  However, we will not be able to do endurance or intense workouts in the heat if we don’t refuel and rehydrate while exercising.  Fortunately, we can train our bodies to digest food and absorb liquids.  When our digestive tracks are not heat adapted, a sour stomach, bloating or the feeling of liquid sloshing around in our bellies is common.  These usually lead to stomach cramps and we stop refueling and rehydrating.  This leads to disaster! Eat a good meal three hours or more before a heat stress workout.  It will take three hours to digest this meal.

  • Eat a good meal three hours or more before a heat stress workout. It will take three hours to digest this meal.
  • Drink while exercising, and make sure you are hydrated before you start.
  • We need to drink more water than usual when training in the heat. In arid climates, it is easy to think we don’t need to replace lost fluid because our sweat is evaporating so rapidly our skin and clothes are dry.  Aim to drink .5 – 1L of fluids per hour. Drink even more when in conditions like Death Valley or the Amazon.
  • Freeze half of liquids in a bottle/ hydration bladder, or fill bottles 2/3 with ice cubes. Hot liquids are unpleasant to drink and are generally still untouched when we finish training, leaving us completely wiped out.  Cool liquids will help cool your core temperature too.
  • Replace lost electrolytes. Alternate pure water and electrolyte mix during training sessions or follow hourly training dose guidelines for specific electrolyte tablets like MetaSalt or Endurolytes.
  • It is hard to digesting food in the heat. Err on the side of moist carbohydrates such as sports drinks, gels, blocks, rice balls, etc. instead of dry bars, sandwiches, trail mix, and the like.  Fats and proteins are especially hard to digest in hot conditions.  Avoid them during workouts or add them in carefully.
  • You will burn calories keeping cool. Consume more calories than you usually do.

What Physiologically Changed During the Heat Acclimatization Training Block?

  • Our blood volume increases. Blood no longer becomes thick and taxing for the hearts to pump.  Heart rate and V02 max return to normal zones.  Efforts feel as they should: endurance pace no longer feels like a fast pace, and sprints are fast again.
  • Our cardiac output increases. We can now get oxygen-carrying blood to our organs, working muscles and skin at the same time.  This returns our endurance, recovery between intervals and power to normal, and it diminishes Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS).
  • We sweat more profusely at lower temperatures but with less electrolytes lost. This lets us dump heat efficiently and reduces cramps.
  • We also improve fluid and nutrient absorption. We can now fuel our long sessions and intense efforts.

Traveling to a Hot Location to Race or Adventure In?

fun in the heat
Heat Adapted Athletes Having Fun
  • Arrive in the climate as many days prior to the event as possible.
  • Spend the two weeks before departing adapting to heat by training in the warmest location available. Be creative!  Crank the heat in a small room for a trainer session, go to Bikram yoga, train in excessive layers, etc.
  • If the destination will be humid and you live in arid conditions, you will want to adapt to this as well. In humidity, sweat does not evaporate well off our bodies.  Find a steam room to use daily and increase the time in it each day in addition to heat stress training.  Our bodies will adapt to this too if asked nicely.
  • Continue the adaptation routine on arrival, but do not get exhausted before the big day! Training days should be short, at an easy effort, and ended before the heat is impacting performance.  Cool down as soon as the training session is complete.

Summer heat?  Bring it on!

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“Carson City, So Hot Right Now. Carson City.” – Zoolander

xc 2 stan (2)Last weekend I headed to Carson City, Nevada to race the Epic Rides Carson City Off-Road Race.  It was the first time I have raced a 55-mile course with a women’s field this stacked, and I was stoked for a new challenge.  However, I never imagined my biggest challenge would be the extreme conditions.

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“More fun, hot, and exposed trail ahead,” Course Marker

Winter would not give in to spring this year in Bend, OR.  Much of our mountain bike terrain was under snow until I left for a few weeks of traveling and racing. I’ve been riding in leggings and sleeves to stay warm, and when I surrendered hope for the trails and hit the road, snow was in the forecast again.  Even my spring training week in St. George, UT was during a cold streak of rain and temps in the 60’s.  Needless to say, I do not have tan lines or acclimatization to the heat!  Arriving in Carson City I learned they too were melting out from an epic winter, and the course had to be modified to lower elevations: three loops covering 55 miles with over 7000ft of climbing on exposed terrain.  And then, last minute, the heat wave hit.  The temps rapidly went from the sixties to the nineties; I would be racing in ninety-five degree temperatures without tree coverage to stay out of the sun.  Gulp.  It was time to plan for how to race in the conditions when I was completely not acclimated to heat.  

Here is what I did to acclimate as much as I could in the days leading up to the race:

  • I pre-rode the course (about 19 miles) during peak heat every day except Saturday.
  • I drank as much water as I could all day, alternating water with electrolytes.
  • I avoided air conditioned environments, but kept cool with cold showers and dips in the river.  Likewise, I slept with the windows open.  ***(see bottom of post)***
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Staying with Sophia and Nicki through the corners on the crit.

Friday evening was the fat tire criterion race.  It would be a good test run of my heat hardiness.  I did a full hour plus warm-up in the heat for my race, and drank carbohydrates and electrolytes. The crit was a blast.  It was my first of this variety: a short loop on the roads through downtown Carson City with tight corners that we raced through on our mountain bikes. The pace was instantly fast, and we were shoulder to shoulder going into the first few turns.  At the second corner there was a crash that I stayed clear of, but it reminded me that my first priority was to stay safe.  The pack started to break up and I pulled into the lead group.  The worst place to be is at the back of a group in this sort of race.  You are forced to brake into corners and sprint out of them to keep up.  This yo-yo riding blows through your energy reserves quickly.  I knew this and had the sprint power to pull into the middle of the pack, but every time I did a more experienced crit rider would challenge me for position, and I would back.  As expected, I blew up just 10 minutes into a race of 30 minutes plus three laps.  After a lap, I recovered enough to try and claw back to the lead group.  That turned out to be an impossible task for me solo with a headwind climb, but I was able to practice smart strategy and pass two women who popped off the lead group.  It turns out I have learned a thing or two about road racing watching the grand tours on TV over the years.  Dripping sweat I made the final lap.  I knew I would have to be more strategic in managing the conditions on Sunday for the big race if I wanted to be successful.

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My host family father and son finishing the Epic Ride together.

Saturday, the amateurs took to the course.  I did my tune-up ride in the morning before the temperatures hit the nineties then headed out to cheer the racers on.  Dennis and Spencer, my host families father and son were racing as well as many others I knew.  Many of them were visibly overheated.  I knew preventing this was essential for me the following day.  That night my host family threw a backyard party to celebrate those who raced that day.  I heard their race play-by-plays and took note.  Cramping and sour stomachs were a big issue for them, as was their lack of desire to take in calories in the heat.  I had a plan for this and fell asleep confident for Sundays event.

XC stan (2)
Off the back… but only for a moment!

At 7:40am Sunday morning in eight-five degrees, the pro women’s field started the Carson City Off Road. The pace was social as we rode out of downtown and picked up as we headed to King’s Canyon.  As we hit the gravel road I glanced at my Garmin and was surprised to see my effort was too high to sustain for the distance in the heat.  It was devastating to be the first woman to drop off the peloton, but I stuck to my strategy knowing that going too hard too early would put my success in jeopardy.  Adding insult to my ego, my husband Joe and host family were just ahead to cheer me on, and I was in dead last. I did holler to Joe that my position was part on my “Grand Plan” so he wouldn’t worry and I pedaled by.  As we hit the single track the peloton started to break up, and I caught up to two women.  I got around them before the descent and put some distance between us.  Later in the descent I caught several women and knew that if I stuck to my steady-Eddie pace and confident downhill skills I would continue to move up the field.

XC Dennis pic edit
Headed home.  Olivia is just ahead.  Pavement is in sight.  Go, go, go!

The second lap was a blur of passing women, hydrating, fueling, feeling the heat take it’s toll, and enjoying the descent to cheering crowds.  At the end of the second lap I met Joe to pick up a new frozen hydration pack.  He dumped ice water all over me to cool me down then I pedaled through the streets to downtown feeling spry.

The third lap was a crusher.  I kept my pace in check, resisting the urge to slow.  I knew I was heating up so I started drinking as much cool fluid as I could.  I was dreaming of a breeze or the shade of a single tree as I caught Olivia, a beast of an endurance racer, ahead of me. Then I started to get goose-bumps, a sure sign of overheating.  I

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Olivia and I at the finish, both of us are in disbelief that we rode the last five miles that fast.

slowed, and at an aid station I doused myself in ice water and drank even more until my temperature was under control.  I headed out again with a friendly push from the aid team.  I began to feel better and better as I continued to climb with only dim hopes of catching Olivia who had passed me while I dealt with my overheating, but I did near the end of the descent!  There was no room to pass, so I hugged her wheel.  We hit the last, short climb and Olivia took off like a rabbit.  I gave chase, but she put a little distance between us.  Olivia is a pro-roadie and can crush open terrain like the pavement we hit.  I spun my legs as fast as I could in my largest gear, zipping through the city and sprinting to the finish.  Though Olivia kept her lead on me, I was stoked to have a her to motivate me to give my all at the end of a tough race.  What a great day.  My thoughtful preparations to race in the heat and trusting the strategy I laid out for myself were key to a successful race.  Dare I say it?  Bring on the heat!

These beautiful images are generously provided by Stan Lattin.  Follow him on Instagram @mtb_stan_lee

***Follow up post about the science of adapting to extreme heat and how to do it coming next week!  Stay tuned.***