How to train in the heat like a pro

With a prolonged heat wave settled in across Western Canada, many of us are finding ourselves running in uncomfortable temperatures.

Over the past two weeks I have been in the enviable position of getting to interview some of Canada’s Olympic marathoners about their preparation for the Games this summer. Rather than commiserate with me about the heat, these athletes say having the opportunity to train in such conditions helps them prepare for the high temperatures they are sure to face in Japan. In fact, these athletes go out of their way to simulate hot weather on more mild days by doing treadmill runs in hot rooms or running in heavy clothes.

Following the 2019 World Athletics Championships in Doha, Qatar, I had the opportunity to speak with Athletics Canada’s lead physiologist, Trent Stellingwerff, about how the country’s top athletes prepare for races in extreme heat. He told me it takes a person 10 to 14 days to fully acclimate to the heat, which is why heat training is important for athletes leading up to events in hot weather. Elite athletes often go to a hot training camp roughly two weeks before a competition to give their bodies time to adjust to the conditions.

Training in the heat triggers physiological changes in athletes’ bodies. Blood volume increases, which increases the amount of blood pumped and subsequently lowers heart rates for given efforts. Sweat rate increases and sweat becomes more watery (to conserve more salt). Core body temperatures drop by about half a degree Celsius, allowing runners to exert themselves longer before hitting a critical threshold.

But even with those changes, athletes still take steps to beat the heat. Here are some of the tips the pros shared with me:

  • Find a pre-cooling ritual before embarking on a run. This can involve taking a cold shower before leaving the house or wrapping an ice cold towel around the back of your neck.
  • Hydrate. Make sure you’re drinking fluids before, during and after your run. Running backpacks and vests are a great way to carry liquids on a run or you can consider setting an aid station along a looped course.
  • Don’t forget electrolytes. Heavy sweating can deplete the body’s electrolytes so for longer runs make sure to have a way to replenish them. This could involve having sports drinks, gels or other snacks.
  • Dump water over yourself when possible to keep cool.
  • Understand that heat will affect your performance. You’re unlikely to clock a personal best time in 40 C weather — so don’t try. Adjust your pace to the conditions.

Of course if you’d rather some time off of running until the heat wave abates, that’s OK too. However you choose to face the heat this week be safe and have fun.