THE ULTIMATE GUIDE TO SUMMER RUNNING
I love running, and I love summer, but running in the summer is something I kind of hate. As much as I love running by green flowering trees and sparkling waters, the heat and humidity usually get the better of me and send me running indoors for the treadmill or straight into a cold swimming pool. But, avoiding the outdoors is out of the question if you are serious about sticking to a running routine or training for a race. It was actually by signing up for a September half marathon that motivated me to face the heat and learn the tricks that make running in the heat more manageable.
Running in the heat is hard for everyone and for several reasons. When you are running in steamy and hot weather conditions, your body temperature runs higher than normal, you sweat more, and you body has to work much harder in general. Many of your “normal” running habits have to be adjusted, such as your pace, what you wear, how you hydrate and where you run. Without these adjustments, many runners become disappointed and discouraged because they can’t meet goals they set, feel that they are not in very good shape and may even put themselves at risk of a heat-induced illness by trying to push themselves.
If you struggle with running in the summer, you are not alone. EVERY runner has had their own battles with the summer heat, but this handy guide will give you all information you need to ward off most of summer running dangers as well as how to make the most out of your training program in the summer months.
3 REASONS WHY RUNNING IN THE HEAT IS HARD
Before I go into the tips for managing summer running, a quick lesson on why the task is so hard. There are three main reasons why the heat makes running so miserable:
#1. HIGHER BODY TEMPERATURE
When you run (or do any other form of exercise) your core body temperature naturally increases, and your sweat glands produce drops of sweat that carry the extra heat to the surface of the skin, where it dissolves and evaporates. But when you run in the sun and heat, your body temperature increases faster and much higher than you are used to. When your core temperature reaches scorching heights, less blood is available to transfer oxygen to your working muscles, which increases your perceived exertion level and makes your “normal” running pace feel like a march through hell. Heat stoke can occur when your body temps reach above 104. In the video below Dr. Goforth explains the dangers of heat stroke.
#2. YOU SWEAT LESS EFFICIENTLY
Perspiration is key for cooling the body off because as the sweat reaches the surface of the skin, it evaporates, taking excess heat with it. But when the air is thick with humidity, your sweat won't evaporate very quickly, making it harder and harder for the body to process the heat out. When this is combined with a high body temperature, your setting the stage for severe dehydration and a host of heat-induced issues.
#3. YOUR HEART MUST WORK DOUBLE-TIME
Harvard Medical School shared an detailed report on how the heat affects the heart. The first two conditions (higher core temperature and lack of efficient heat elimination through sweat) ultimately lead to your heart having to work twice as hard. Your heart rate tends to be higher than normal under these conditions because it has to work double time to pump blood, which becomes increasingly thicker, and deliver oxygen to your working muscles. In other words, your whole cardiovascular system has to work extra hard in the heat. Think of it this way, your heart already works double-time when you go from resting rate to running rate, then must double again when you are running in the heat - that's quadruple the amount of work it does when you're resting! No wonder you feel like dying!
Now that I’ve likely scared you out of pursuing a summer running routine, let me assure you that running in the heat is safe and manageable with the right equipment and know-how. Keep reading for all the info you need to become a summer-running machine (you might even learn to love it).
BEFORE YOU RUN
Check the heat index. Ever notice how sometimes it feels way hotter outside than the temperature leads you to believe? That’s because temperature alone is not enough to gauge heat - it’s silent partner humidity is just as unfriendly. When the air is thick with humidity, the process of evaporation of sweat from the skin is delayed, therefore, your body, as I stated earlier, can quickly overheat. When you check the weather report, make sure to check the Heat Index, which combines temperature with relative humidity, providing you with “apparent temperature,” or how it actually feels outside. It is not recommended to run outside when the heat index is 96 degrees fahrenheit or higher. Move your workout indoors or consider cross-training.
PLAN YOUR ROUTE
Run when the the sun is down. The number one best way to beat the summer heat, is to run in the early morning or evening when the sun is at it’s weakest and the temperature is at it’s lowest. But, temperatures may still be high during these times and humidity can be worse than midday - so still plan on being hot! Map a course that includes water fountains. If you are running in the city, use the app WeTap to plan a route that includes water fountains.
HIT THE TRAILS
When the temperatures rise, asphalt and concrete absorb heat and radiate it back into your face. Trail running offers a friendlier terrain in the heat and is usually shaded by trees, plus a better air quality than urban routes. Run near water. Rivers, lakes and oceans tend to create cooler and breezier conditions, and offer a great place to cool off afterwards! If you don’t live near a natural water source, you can plan a route that ends at a public swimming pool (just make sure you pack some cash and wear proper swimming attire under your running clothes).
The most important thing you must do to prepare for running in the heat is hydrating yourself properly. Remember that this needs to take place hours before you run, you can’t magically hydrate yourself 30 minutes before exercising. Drink lots of water throughout the day so that you are always be well hydrated when you start running (clear or light yellow urine is always a good indicator that you are well hydrated). Stop drinking water about 15 minutes before your run. You can find additional hydrating tips in this handy article.
CHOOSE THE RIGHT CLOTHING
Every runner is different, so finding the right clothing that will make you feel comfortable and confident running in the heat may require you to experiment a little bit. Start by wearing what makes you feel best. Make mental notes during your run about what bothers you and adjust accordingly. Know that the heat will make you sweat more than usual, so be sure to wear clothes that will help you wick away the sweat and avoid chafing. Some general rules of thumb include:
- Avoid cotton and opt for moisture-wicking fabrics. Cotton does not breathe well and becomes heavy when drenched in sweat.
- Opt for sport specific synthetics with moisture wicking properties, usually made of polyesters. These materials will allow your skin to breathe, pulling moisture away from your skin and letting it evaporate much faster, which can keep your core temperature cooler. I am a fan of Under Armour moisture wicking gear. From a price point perspective it's relatively fair and they last a long time.
- Shorts and tanks/shirts with mesh ventilation are also great for running in the hot weather.
ALLOW AIR FLOW
- Most runners feel that the more access their skin has to the air, the better they feel. This is why many runners wear as little clothing as possible, or opt for loose fitting shorts and tops when it’s hot outside.
- On the flip side, some runners find that when they wear light long-sleeve shirts, their skin has less contact with the sun and their sweat evaporates faster with help from the material - therefore staying cooler. I agree with the majority that maximum air flow is best, but they are both worth a trial run!
- Choose light colors. There's a good reason sport clothing comes in so many florescent colors - light colors tend to absorb less heat than dark colors. They also make you more visible if you are running when the sun is down.
CHOOSE THE RIGHT SOCKS
Heat causes your feet to swell, which can make running uncomfortable and invite blisters. Again, avoid cotton and go with a breathable moisture-wicking sock that doesn’t feel too tight or constricting. You also may want to tie your shoelaces a little looser than normal to allow room for the aforementioned swelling. I have been wearing the Thirty48 moisture wicking socks for the last three months or so. They fit my feet perfectly and keep my feet cool WITHOUT getting blisters. I purchased them from Amazon because of the extremely high rating.
PROTECT YOURSELF FROM THE SUN
- Use sunblock. Apply sunscreen 15 minutes before you go outside so that your skin has time to absorb. Don’t forget a chapstick with SPF too!
- Wear Sunglasses. Having the sun in your eyes isn’t just annoying, it’s also harmful to your health. To secure your sunglasses while running, you can cut a rubber band and tie it tightly to each end of your frames, or apply baby powder to the bridge of your nose to keep your them from sliding down your face once you start to sweat. Or, wear a hat or visor. Which are just as effective as sunglasses without running the risk of face tanlines.
- As an added bonus, you can soak your hat in cold water or even throw it in the freezer for an hour before you run to help keep you cool.
- Wear sleeves. As I mentioned above, some runners swear by wearing sleeves on a hot run to help protect their skin from the sun and absorb sweat. Look for long sleeve tops designed specifically for hot weather running. A few that I recommend are Under Armour long sleeve tech shirt or the women's heat gear that my wife wears.
LOWER YOUR BODY TEMPERATURE
Lower your body temperature before you run. Studies have shown that athletes who lower their body temperature before exercising in the heat showed less signs of stress and overall better performance. You can do this by taking a cold shower, lying in front of a fan or air conditioner, or my personal favorite, downing a cold slushy or a few freezer pops.
DIY COLLAR COOLING
If you’re handy with a thread and needle, check out this awesome DIY project for a cooling collar. Wear it while you run to reduce heat stress and feel great.Not into DIY? Here is one I found on Amazon that is a very reasonable price.
STUFF YOUR BRA
Since most of the visitors this blog are women, this is clearly for you. Slipping some ice packs in the back or sides of your sports bra is a great way to help keep you cool as you go, they will melt slower than you think and keep you cool for the whole run! (I don't have any experience with these but my wife says it does the trick!)
UP YOUR SALT INTAKE
Salt is usually thought of as something you should reduce in your diet, but if you are sweating a ton everyday, you want to keep your sodium levels adequate to avoid hypernatremia. You can up your salt intake by simply adding a pinch more salt to your food, adding a sprinkle to your water bottle, opting for a sports drink rather than water, or quickly swallowing a salt packet (I’ve heard these actually appear at some aid stations during summer marathons!).). The folks over at Little Bits of Granola put together a great list of 35 healthy salty snacks.
Be prepared for an emergency. Have a game plan in case a heat-induced illness leaves you stranded. You can plan a loop route that allows you stay close to your home, bring a cell phone or some cab fare, or run with a buddy.
DURING YOUR RUN
Don’t skimp the warm-up. Just because you feel warm, that doesn’t mean your muscles are prepared to work. Warm-up as you normally would with stretches, light exercises and jogging.
ADJUST YOUR EXPECTATIONS
This is not the time to be obsessed with breaking PR’s, burning X number of calories, keeping a certain pace, or sticking with a strict schedule. When it’s really hot outside, your body is already working harder than usual and the last thing you want to do injure yourself in an effort to push yourself. Leave your watch and training expectations at home and base your effort and time spent running on how you feel rather than using a tracker. Listen to your body and pay attention to warning signs like dizziness, weakness, and headaches. These can all be signs of overheating and dehydration.
GIVE YOUR BODY TIME TO ACCLIMATE
Just because you could run a 5k in under 25 minutes in the spring, doesn’t mean you will be able to run at that pace in the summer heat. Don’t beat yourself up or try to push too hard, your body will adjust over time. Start low and slow and increase speed and distance gradually as running in the heat starts to feel easier after a few weeks in the sun.
Pour cold water over your head. If you start to feel really hot but want to keep going, stop to pour some cold water over your head. This is a quick and efficient way to lower your skin temperature and make you feel instantly refreshed.
Stop to drink water at least every 20 minutes during your run. As mentioned above, it’s helpful to plan a route that includes water fountains using the app WeTap if you aren’t equipped to bring your own.
DEVELOP A SUMMER RUNNING MANTRA
If you’re like me, some of the first things you might think upon stepping out to run on a hot day are “damn, it’s hot out here” or “nobody can run in this heat” or “OMG, I CAN’T.” But as we all know, half the battle is in your mind. I’m not saying you should avoid clear signs of heat-induced illnesses or try to convince yourself to push your body past your comfort zone, but keep it positive. Think cool and grateful thoughts. Try “Thank God it’s not in the 90’s today” or “Thank goodness for shade and water” or try just repeating words like “Icy,” “chill,” “colder,” and “cool” as a mantra. You can even create a running playlist that helps you think positive a cool thoughts (“Ice, Ice Baby” and “Cool for the Summer” are a great place to start).
RUN WITH A FRIEND
The ultimate running motivator is to find a friend who is just as dedicated to running as you. Talking with a friend during a run is a great way to keep your pace comfortable and keep yourself distracted from the heat. It’s also a safer if running in the early morning or late evening when the sun is down makes you uncomfortable, or if a heat-induced illness presents itself.
AFTER YOUR RUN
Go for a swim. As I’ve already mentioned above, planning a route that is near water or ends near a public swimming pool is a great way to cool down after a hot run. Not only does it feels amazing, but it will help return your body temperature and heart rate to normal.
Soak your feet in cold water. Soaking your feet in cold water will help bring your body temperature down quickly and reduce swelling caused by the heat. You can also apply ice packs to your head and ears to quickly bring down your body temperature.
Guzzle down the H2O as soon as you finish running and start replacing what you’ve lost. If you were running for more longer than an hour, you may also want to reach for a sports drink to replenish electrolytes. If you want to keep track of how much water you need to replace, weigh yourself before you run and then again afterwards. Drink 16 oz. of water for every pound lost.
There is about a 30 min. window just after you finish exercising when your body is at it’s prime for nutrient absorption. Reach for some healthy and nutrient-rich snacks while you’re body is cooling down.
Ice cream anyone?