We've reached the time of year when things are getting hot and humid. Unfortunately, we aren't even close to the peak yet. Over the last few weekends, I've seen many posts regarding hot races and how it affected athletes. Even the top athletes in OCR talked about struggling in the heat this past weekend at their events. That's not surprising because most of them, and most everyone, hasn't had time to properly adjust to or prepare for the heat and humidity yet. Sadly, I also just saw an article which talked about several people being hospitalized, and one dying, at a half marathon due to heat injury. It's a real, and serious topic. So, how DO you prepare?
1: You MUST train in the heat and humidity.
If you run on the treadmill in an air-conditioned gym all the time, you WILL NOT be ready for the heat and humidity come race day. I'm not saying to take your weekend long run outside this weekend when you aren't used to it. However, you HAVE to get outside and train in adverse conditions if you want your body to hold up during those adverse conditions on race day. If you don't, it's actually not very safe for you to go out and race. Could you still do it? Yes. Would it be wise? Probably not.
2: You MUST train SMART in the heat and humidity.
In an ideal world, you would spend time training outside, at least some of the time, year- round. However, especially when Spring hits and things start to warm up, you need to be getting training done outdoors. As weather gradually changes, you get to adapt with it. Sometimes there is a pretty dramatic swing from cool to hot and humid, and when that happens, you should gradually increase your time training in the heat & humidity. That may look like a 15-20 minute run outside at first for many people. I'd recommend increasing the time of outdoor sessions by 5 or so minutes at a time from workout-to-workout or week-to-week. That being said, some people just struggle with the heat more than others. It's a case by case basis. Just know that you should start low, and build up gradually over time just as you would/should with your training volume.
3: You should be hydrated ALL the time.
Hydrating the day before a training session or race is good and all, but if you are consistent with proper levels of hydration all the time, you will have put yourself in a very good place for success. Not only will you greatly decrease your chances of heat-related harm, you will also perform better. Coffee, soda, tea, smoothies, etc. don't count. Water should be the main form of hydration that you use. Your body was designed to function with water as the primary hydration source, so use it, and get enough of it. I am NOT a dietician or sports nutritionist, so I'm not going to tell you how much you should drink, how often, or any of that. That's not my place. I highly recommend you research credible sources and/or speak with a professional on the matter. It's worth it to keep yourself from serious harm.
4: Make sure you are replacing electrolytes.
Again, sports nutrition is not my professional field, so I won't recommend amounts or anything else. Talk to a professional. That being said, when you sweat, you lose electrolytes. Those electrolytes are essential for your body to function properly and are an essential part of hydration. Make sure you're replacing them.
5: Always plan, in advance, how you will hydrate for a training session or event.
Let's say you have a 10 mile run planned. It's 85 degrees and 80% humidity. That's going to be a tough 10 miles for hydration. If you don't have water bottles or a camelback, you might want to change up the route of your run so that you have hydration points along the way. That might mean running a 2 mile loop around your house where you can stop for water each lap, or it could mean running a route where you know for sure that water fountains are stationed (and how far apart they are). Just make sure you have a plan to hydrate properly. For a race, it might mean looking at the course map to see where the aid stations are placed and determining if you need to bring more water on you, or if those aid stations will suffice.
6: Know when to quit.
I've never not finished a race or competition that I started. I've been very fortunate that way. I've pushed through some events when I didn't feel good. I've done some events (like the 12 mile ruck at the GORUCK Games a month ago) accidentally without water and I knew I was pushing things with my hydration at that time. That being said, if you feel the signs of heat exhaustion coming on, you NEED to stop and you need to hydrate and you need to let your body cool down. I NEVER advocate for quitting UNLESS a person's health is on the line. When health is actually on the line, quit every single time. You can always race again some day, unless you destroy your body today.
All in all, hydration and training adaptations are essential to help prevent heat injuries. It's horrible reading articles about athletes going down. The entire purpose of this article is to help solve a dangerous problem by providing information about it. I didn't go over a lot of nitty-gritty details, again, because that's not my professional area of expertise. Speak to an expert, and they'll be able to give you the information you need in very little time. After that, it's up to you to implement that information to keep yourself in the race!