When the temperature rises to the mid-90’s and the humidity hits 70 percent, you have to be a little crazy to go running. If you follow some safety guidelines carefully, it can still be done. Smart people stay home and run on the treadmill in the air conditioning. I still prefer running outside.
This year the world just feels hotter. Never mind the global warming arguments, 95 degrees is hotter this summer than in any other year I remember. Nearly every day for the last few weeks the heat index has been over a hundred degrees, with National Weather Service warnings not to exert yourself in the sun. So I go running — not every day, but three times a week. I’ve fallen into a pattern that seems to yield steady progress. The first run of the week sucks. Hot, tired, don’t want to be doing that, wish I didn’t care about fitness. The second run of the week usually goes well — if I get out before the heat hits, my time usually gets better, compared to the week before. The third run of the week always has me optimistic, and it usually sucks nearly as bad as the first one did.
For most of my life I’ve worked and played in the heat and found the hottest part of the year the most enjoyable. If you spend enough time in it, you get used to it. According to NIOSH that takes about a week of daily exertion and exposure. That’s probably accurate, because I remember that most years sometime in May the weather suddenly shifts from cool and wet to humid and hot, and for the first few days it’s a killer. Everything you try to do is five times as hard and you just drag yourself from job to job.
After that, things aren’t so bad until the real heat hits in late July or August. That’s the dangerous heat, when it’s in the mid-90’s or above and if you push too hard, you overheat and don’t cool down. You don’t quite acclimatize to that. The better your conditioning, the better your heat exchange rate, but if you make a mistake you’re in trouble. People who have never had the problem get careless. It’s usually the new guy on the crew who falls over, and it’s the older fellows who know the tricks that keep going.
Some of the tricks have changed over the years. In the early 70’s common practice was to pop salt tablets if you worked in the extreme heat. Keep drinking water, and take salt pills. When the government changed its mind about that, adapting to the concept was tough, but it does seem to be true for most of us that there’s enough salt in our daily diet that we can survive heavy sweats without running short. We may run short of other things, but we have sodium in spades. A ham sandwich at lunch gives you plenty. Water is far more important, since during a hot eight hour shift of hard physical labor a person could sweat three gallons out. That has to be replaced. From five to seven ounces every 15 to 20 minutes should be enough. That’s just the water you drink.
When it’s really hot, you have to do more than drink water. You have to wear it. Sweat works up to a point, but sweat is just as hot as you are and only cools by evaporation. Cool water works much better, and I’ve gotten through the hardest days of work outdoors by periodically stopping at a water faucet and dousing myself with water about thirty degrees cooler than I was. Seems simple, but few people I worked with were willing to do it.
Even the little tricks help. In that dangerous zone of temperatures from 95 up, a white hat makes a difference, and a light colored shirt also helps. Cotton acquired a bad reputation in regards to cold conditions, but for the same reasons — good wicking ability and fast heat transfer — it makes good sense in hot weather. I always found that long sleeves, unbuttoned, were cooler than short sleeves if I spent long hours working in the sun. Now that I’m running instead of doing hard labor, short sleeves seem better, but there are different opinions about what proper clothing really is. Most athletes wear less, but people who work in hot situations wear more. Cultures adapted to hot desert conditions often favor loose robes. We may eventually see the official rulings on proper athletic gear change in that direction — someone would need to try it first, and win an important race, but it might happen. Cotton running kilts may be all the rage next year. Today it certainly seemed like a good idea.
When it’s this hot, it’s not silly to take advantage of every bit of terrain. Every patch of shade I can fit into, I run through, not past. That few seconds of respite has a benefit that’s obvious. In winter you lose most of your heat through the top of your head, and in summer that’s where you feel it the most. Shade is good.
The most important thing I can do, out running when the Weather Service says it’s dangerously stupid, is watch my own symptoms. If I run slower, I get farther without having trouble. If I push it, I’ll hit the danger zone before I get all the way home. One of the first signs is weakness. It hits suddenly, and everything feels loose. You get nauseous, dizzy and sloppy and even though you could keep going, that’s when you should stop and start walking. Heat exhaustion is really easy to ignore. You get some of those same symptoms from just being out of shape and exerting yourself, but in a cool environment you’ll recover quickly when you stop and rest. If it’s dangerously hot and you push a little too far, you might not recover.
If you have support, it’s still possible to push on. On a long run we’ve set up our own aid stations by stashing water and power drinks at two mile intervals along the road. Drink water, douse yourself, cool down and keep going. If you don’t have that backup of supplies, pushing the envelope of heat exhaustion isn’t smart. Stop running and walk. If you stop completely you’ll lose that cooling airflow, but don’t try to set any speed records. Competitive runners usually aren’t far from medical care. Where I’m running, there’s nothing but beans and corn.
Running only a five kilometer course, I don’t feel obliged to carry water. I probably should, but I don’t. In that distance I’m not going to get dehydrated or run out of nutrients. A sports drink when I get home makes me feel better, but before a run a “power drink” has less effect on me than an apple does. I’m well aware of all the expert opinions about what cardio rate is best and what level of exertion burns fat and what doesn’t — I’ve been running since 1969 and those opinions change frequently. Professional ideas don’t necessarily evolve towards anything more accurate. I like to do what works for me. If I make a little progress every week, see some sort of improvement, and get through the days when it’s so hot the dogs won’t leave the shade of their porch to chase me, I don’t care whether I’m following anyone’s program or not.
NIOSH: Working in Hot Environments — The government’s advice usually is pretty good, but remember that you’re dealing with the people who say ketchup is a vegetable. Next year the official bright idea might be a return to salt tablets.
Running on the Sun: The Badwater 135 — Best movie ever about the right and wrong way to run in the heat. Some make it, some don’t, and you’ll see people with the strangest training ideas ever, but no one does the Badwater without planning and lots of help.