If you can’t stand the heat…

…do something about it!

Living and training in Norway I am far more used to cold than heat. Give me rain, sleet, wind and snow and I know how to deal with it, it’s basically just a question of wearing enough, and the right type of layers. In hot conditions I have often struggled in races, running out of energy, or developing stomach issues, or both. This is basically what caused a DNF in my last 100 mile race. 30-35 degrees Celsius was a shock to the body after a long winter, especially since the forecast was for only half that number of degrees. I was neither mentally nor physically prepared. Knowing that my next big race was the Western States 100 mile race (WSER), known for its extreme heat, I asked coach Sondre Amdahl «now what do I do?». Sondre had a plan.

So how do you prepare for heat when living in a cold climate? The best thing would be to spend 2 weeks in a hot climate just before your goal race, as this is approximately the time it takes for your body to acclimatize to high temperatures. However, if you don’t have the opportunity to this, which I didn’t, there are also methods you can use while staying at home. This is what Sondre did when preparing for the desert race Marathon des Sables during winter in Trysil, a region of Norway famous for its abundance of snow. This is called heat acclimating. Normally I would do a literature review of the science behind this approach, but as Elisabeth Barnes (former winner of the MdS) has already done this on her blog, and Corinne Malcolm has a great article about this on irunfar.com I will instead do a subjective review of the methods I used – their practicality, level of (dis)comfort, cost, and any bonus effects, i.e. benefits aside from the heat stress, experienced.

  • Layering up and running:

Probably the method that is most time efficient and requires the least organizing. You simply put on a lot of clothes and go out for a run, either outside, preferably when it’s hot, or on the treadmill. Getting the layering right can be a bit tricky though. The first couple of runs I did I did not put on enough clothes, so the effects were probably limited. The rule of thumb here is that more is definitely more. The last couple of runs I still felt I was more comfortable than I should have been, but I hope that was because it felt comfortable relative to sitting in the sauna, i.e. that my heat comfort had changed.

Another benefit of layering up was getting to use all the extra warm winter gear that I haven’t used for a long time, as the winters in Stavanger haven’t been cold enough. I realized some of my winter base layers do not work well when wet, as they did not seem to wick sweat very efficiently, and therefore cooled me down instead of keeping me warm. Those items should probably go in the bin rather than back in my closet. Yay, another benefit – a much needed purge of my wardrobe.

The main drawback of this method is probably that you feel really stupid doing it. Does anyone else remember the «sauna pants» that people wore to aerobics classes in the 80s, or the «sauna belts» that they sold on TV shop in the 90s, claiming that it would make subcutanoeous fat melt and run out through the pores in your skin? I do, and that’s why I felt like an idiot doing the layering up. I was assuming people seeing me would think I was trying to increase fat burning rather than heat training.

  • Sauna

For me this turned out to be the easiest method to use, as I have access to a sauna in the gym where I work. This meant I could pop into the sauna after doing a treadmill session or a gym workout, or just use it before or after work if I was having a rest day. However, it was also the method I found the most unpleasant. And boring. There’s not much to do in a sauna. I tried reading, which was an effective way of taking my mind off how long was left to sit there, and how my ears were burning and skin was itching due to the heat, however, both books and magazines would simply dissolve after about 30 minutes due to the heat and sweat. Saunas also need better reading light. Another drawback of sauna sessions is that they don’t give any additional benefits, that I am aware of, other than the heat training.

  • Hot yoga

This was the method that I enjoyed the most, but also the one that was the most costly, required the most organizing, and was most time consuming. First had to find a yoga studio offering classes at times that suited me. Since the studio that was nearest only had classes in the two evenings that I always work I ended up going to a studio that was a one hour bike ride away. A 90 minute session would therefore take about four and a half hours of my day, including time get changed and organized beforehand and showering after. On the plus side, this meant I was getting some cross training done while heat training. Cycling, stretching, balance training, and last but not least, the relaxation and meditation at the end of the classes was really great. Hot yoga made me feel energized, while the other methods made me feel drained and slightly nauseous. I will probably renew my membership at the yoga studio after the WSER, just in case it gets hot at the North Downs Way 100 in August.

Want to read about the science?


How Runners can Acclimate to Heat

Reading the above articles, I have to admit I have not been able to do it 100 % by the book. I don’t think there has ever been a race where I feel I have done enough to prepare, there is always something more I could or should have done. However, I have done my best, and luckily the research shows that even just a few heat training sessions can have benefits. I have also noticed that I am sweating more, but that my sweat is less salty, meaning that some physiological adaptations have taken place. The increase in heat comfort is maybe even more important. However hot the canyons at WSER get, they can’t be worse than a sauna. Can they?

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