It’s Hot Out There!
By Lena Hollmann
When I watched the Boston Marathon winners Wesley Korir and Sharon Cherop, both of Kenya, cross the finish line in April, they both looked strong. I knew they had been working hard to shake off competitors, primarily from their homeland, so they certainly didn’t have much opportunity to slack off during the race. Yet their finishing times, 2:12:40 and 2:31:50, were several minutes slower than we normally see when a bunch of elite runners battle it out on that Boston course, which has a net drop in elevation in spite of Heartbreak Hill. But this year the runners, elite and “regulars” alike, faced not just the clock and their human competitors. They also had to contend with Mother Nature, who had served up a menu consisting of bright sunshine accompanied with temperatures that rose to the high 80s by afternoon.
The weather in Boston can be unpredictable in April, to say the least. Had the race been one week later, runners would have faced a chilly rain, and a temperature that reminded more of winter than spring. Even down here in North Carolina it got chilly, and I had to turn the heat back on! However, by the time you read this it will be June, when summer starts in earnest, at least here in the South. Heat and humidity will be the rule and not the exception, so we may as well get used to it. Maybe you have run a few hot races already, or are anticipating one.
Running in hot weather can be a challenge for everyone, but it is especially so for older runners. As we get older we have a reduced sensation of thirst, and we may therefore not drink enough water to keep us hydrated. An older person’s body is also not as efficient in regulating its temperature. It takes a higher internal temperature to make an older person sweat, than it would in a younger individual. Sweat is a cooling mechanism for our bodies that kicks in when the internal temperature rises, usually due to exercising, but sometimes when we just hang out in hot and humid conditions. This mechanism is quite efficient in young people (although they are still at risk for problems if they work out hard in extreme heat), while older individuals who exercise in the heat may not be sweating enough to keep their temperature from rising to dangerously high levels. And when that happens, the result could be heat exhaustion, or even heat stroke that could be fatal.
Since we runners tend to be fitter than the general population, our temperature regulating mechanism is probably also more efficient in most cases, even as we get older. But unlike most non-runners, we are exercising outdoors even on hot summer days, putting our systems to the test. Our body temperature goes up when we exercise hard regardless of our age. And we may not always realize it. I remember pouring water over my head during races in the summer when I was younger, and while doing so I wondered whether I could have fried an egg on the top of my head! The water was usually cool when I picked it up in a cup from a volunteer, but as it ran down over my head and my back it was already lukewarm.
It is also important that we accept that our race times will be slower in the heat, especially on longer distances. I never run my best races in the summer, and I usually stick to 5Ks until the weather turns cooler. But even here the heat will slow me down! I recall a 5K in Salisbury, NC, on a hot and sultry evening late last summer. I ran hard and pushed the pace, still my time (25:51) was disappointingly slow compared to what I had accomplished earlier in the year. It was so dismal that I assumed my age was again catching up with me, and my times were heading south, after I had been able to improve them for the previous year or so. About a month later I lined up for my next 5K without high expectations, even though the weather was much more comfortable. But I ran more than a minute faster, and was again back where I “should” be.
Nobody runs their best in the heat, but it affects each person differently. Some of us handle it better than others, and age is not the only factor that determines how well we cope. A few other factors are body fat percentage (the higher it is the worse off we are), how well hydrated we are, and whether we had opportunity to get acclimatized to higher temperatures. I tend to slow down more than most of my competitors in the heat, and I like to blame it on being from Sweden. While growing up there I heard the weatherman call it a heat wave whenever the temperature rose above 75 degrees!
But we all have to be vigilant this time of year, regardless of age or background. We need to recognize symptoms and warning signs of heat related emergencies, both in ourselves and others. They could sneak upon us, as we gradually get overheated during long hard runs. It may start as cramps in the legs or abdomen (heat cramps) and could progress to heavy sweating, headache, nausea, and dizziness, which are all symptoms of heat exhaustion. This is an emergency and you (or the person) must immediately stop running. Move to a cooler place, apply cool wet towels to the skin, and drink cool water slowly. If the condition does not improve, or the person stops sweating, vomits, or starts losing consciousness, it will be necessary to call 911 or a local emergency number immediately. He or she may be suffering from heat stroke, which is a life threatening condition in which the temperature control mechanism has stopped working and the body is unable to cool itself. You certainly don’t want to get to this stage, and it is therefore very important to be alert and aware, and either stop running or significantly slow down at any indication of the above symptoms. It is also a good idea to run with a buddy or two.
And stay hydrated, please! This is important for everyone but especially for older runners because as I mentioned above, our sense of thirst gets reduced as we get older. We may be slightly dehydrated but not realize it since we are not thirsty. During long runs in the summer it is essential that we drink not just before and after, but also during the run. I know that I’m preaching to the choir here, but it won’t hurt to hear it again since if you are properly hydrated you will be less likely to become a victim of a heat related emergency.
So how much should you drink? It depends on your weight and sweat rate, and to some extent also on how hot and humid it is out there. We need to drink enough to replace what was lost on the road or trail. To get an estimate of how much fluid you lost during a run, weigh yourself before, and again afterwards (after taking off your sweat soaked shirt!). It is recommended that we drink two to three coups of fluid for every pound of body weight lost. If you have lost more than two percent of your body weight, then you need to drink more before and during your run.
To summarize: Take it easy, beware of the signs and symptoms of heat emergencies, and stay hydrated. Run in the early morning hours if you can. And hold back a little, even during races! If heat can slow elite Kenyan runners down by several minutes in the Boston Marathon, the rest of us are certainly excused if we don’t set a PR, or even a seasonal best, in a sizzling hot 10K in July.
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