Can You Really Get Used to Running in the Heat?
If you’re anything like me, you probably notice a recurring weather theme each spring or summer. You find yourself wishing you had worn a tad more clothing on a chilly run one day. The next, you’re faced with sweltering temperatures.
The newly arrived heat can leave you feeling pretty sluggish, so it’s understandable that you’d want to seek some advice. Maybe you chat with other running buddies or scour some online forums. In either case, it’s likely you’ll hear other runners talk about adapting to hotter temperatures over time.
But can you really adjust to the heat? Yes, to a certain extent. Your body is able to make several changes that enable you to better cope with heat stress through a process called heat acclimation (or acclimatization). Let’s dig into it a little more.
An Intro to Heat Acclimation
Researchers have been studying heat acclimation for quite some time. Over the decades, we’ve learned that repeated exercise in hot conditions can result in improved comfort as well as better performance. One 2015 review goes through the changes that allow this to happen, including improved cardiovascular stability, increased plasma volume, and increased sweating. You also start to sweat a lot sooner.
There are specific examples demonstrating that athletes really do reap the rewards of heat training, too. One trial carefully tracked the performance of trained cyclists before and after 10 days of heat training. What’s particularly interesting is that the cyclists enjoyed better performance following heat acclimation for time trials at both hotter and cooler temperatures.
How long does it take to adjust to the heat?
Now that we know you really can adjust to the heat, let’s look into how long it takes. One run on a brutally hot day won’t result in the beneficial adaptations, but it also doesn’t take all that long. There are a number of opinions on precisely how long it takes an individual to adjust, but two weeks is a good benchmark.
Once you’re no longer exposed to the heat, you’ll also lose the improvements you gained from heat acclimation. This explains why it’s something you have to go through every year.
How much does it really help?
While adjusting to the heat can make your summer workouts much more manageable, you still need to know your limits. Extraordinarily hot days can be dangerous for even the best-prepared runners, so be smart about your training. Runner’s World suggests lowering your expectations, particularly for intense workouts. Paying attention to how you feel is a better bet than fixating on trying to hit a certain time goal.
So yes, heat acclimation helps. Just know that no amount of hot-weather training is going to make you impervious to skyrocketing temperatures.
Other ways to stay cool
Since heat acclimation has its limits, be sure to think strategically about how you can stay cool. I rely on these three strategies to make sure running in the summer doesn’t become dangerous.
1. Have a hydration plan
Staying hydrated is my highest priority during the summer months. I’m a really heavy sweater, so I wear my hydration vest for anything longer than 10 miles. I also pack it full of ice cubes to keep the water as chilly as possible.
Not everyone loves the feel of a vest, so find something that works for you. Some people like to carry a water bottle in their hand. There are also belts with multiple mini bottles that evenly distribute the weight.
At the very least, make sure you have access to multiple water fountains over the course of your run by planning your routes. I do this just in case I need to refill my vest.
2. Seek shade
It might seem obnoxious to switch which side of the street you’re running along specifically to take advantage of the shade, but it can make a big difference. Experts say solar radiation can make the air feel between 10 and 15 degrees hotter than it actually is. Staying out of the sun could make the difference between a good run and a bad one.
3. Go indoors
If all else fails, there’s no shame in hitting the treadmill in an air-conditioned facility. You can even start outside, then finish the rest of your run indoors. You can also divide things up if you’re doing an interval workout or tempo. Complete the actual hard effort indoors, but do your warm-up and cool-down outside.