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Hot Topic: 5 Essentials for Proper Heat Training & Adaptation

Summer is here and that means athletes of all ages and disciplines will subject themselves to hours upon hours of training and racing in hot and humid conditions. To make the heat training process bearable, there are several essential steps to follow.

If done right, heat training can even lead to performance benefits, says Bettina Warnholtz, head coach and founder of RaceLab, specializing in training and coaching triathletes and runners. “Our bodies are perfect,” Warnholtz says. “We just need to make sure we aid them by properly acclimating to the heat.”

heat training

Heart rate data is essential when athletes begin to gradually submit themselves to heat training.

Warnholtz believes heart rate data is essential when athletes begin to submit themselves to hot and/or humid conditions. “A very cool thing about heart rate is it will indicate to us when it has acclimated to the heat,” she says. “When we acclimate, blood pressure is stabilized.”

She also points out that athletes can lose up to 25% or more of their performance capacity with a 4-7% dehydration factor. More than 7% dehydrated will put an athlete quickly into the danger zone. “During exercise, it’s very difficult to catch up on hydration.”

Exercise Patience

Critical to the heat adaptation process is patience. Warnholtz coaches her athletes that they need to give their bodies adequate time to adapt. “You cannot rush it. You want to very slowly get into higher temperatures. It’s like everything else in training,” she says.

The beauty of heart rate is it gives athletes multiple bytes of important information:

  • Considers temperature/humidity
  • Adapts to changing environmental conditions
  • Adjusts to physiological needs
  • Indicates progress of acclimatization
  • Considers current fitness level
  • Adapts to specificity of workout
  • Reduces risk of overtraining
  • Indicates true physiological efforts and stresses

Honor the Process

Warnholtz warns that when athletes begin the heat acclimatization process, they should expect lower times and paces. “You need to get there slowly. You have to analyze the data. And, of course, it’s very individual,” she says.

The length of the heat training process is very individual. Athletes should:

  • Allow enough time for the body to acclimate (by closely monitoring heart-rate data)
  • Slowly adapt to higher temperatures
  • Rely on total body stress or effort through heart rate readings
  • Expect slower times/paces
  • Train at lower intensity in higher temperatures
  • Train at higher intensity indoors or at cooler temperatures

Hydrate Properly

heat training

Ensure proper hydration when adapting to the heat.

When it come to fluids and heat, water alone is not enough. Warnholtz recommends added electrolytes to support the body’s loss of key minerals and nutrients during efforts in the heat.

To ensure proper hydration:

  • Check urine color (it should be light yellow or nearly clear if well-hydrated).
  • Monitor sweat rate (loss of 1 pound of body weight = 16 oz. fluid). Weigh before and after training or racing.
  • Drink constantly. Focus on sipping through the duration of your training.
  • Hydrate before and after your workout or race.
  • Plan to consume between 16-30 ounces per hour.

Electrolytes help support your body’s essential functions and can reduce the risk of heat cramps, heat exhaustion or heat stroke. You see the result of electrolyte loss when you notice salt residue on your skin and clothing.

“If you’re on top of your hydration, electrolytes, heart rate and the conditions, you’ll be fine,” Warnholtz says. “People get into trouble when there is no goal, no process and no strategy. You, as an athlete, need to be responsible for that.”

  • Start by taking 300-600 mg of electrolytes per hour, Warnholtz advises her clients. You can increase that amount, depending on how you feel. Too many electrolytes may prompt nausea. Log and track how much water and electrolytes you take in and adjust accordingly.
  • Electrolytes come in capsules, soluble tablets, plain salt, and sports drinks. Look for products that contain sodium, potassium, magnesium, chloride and calcium and plan to take in 300-1,200 mg of electrolytes per hour.

Keep Your Cool

heat training

It hot conditions, make extra efforts to help your body stay cool.

When training in the summer heat, use these simple cooling methods to help manage your body temperature. In hot and humid climates, that task becomes even more difficult.

“The top priority of the body is to protect the core temperature to say healthy, “Warnholtz says. “We need to help our bodies cool down through evaporation.”

She advises her clients to pour water over their bodies, use cold towels at aid stations, drink cool water and/or iced water and always think about cooling the core. “At an aid station during a race, instead of just drinking water, get the ice and put it under your armpits, on your groin area or in your hat. These are all methods to help cool your body down.”

Additionally, be respectful of the environment and humidity levels. “In dry heat, we rely on evaporation to cool down,” says Warnholtz. “If we consume enough water and electrolytes and control our effort, we support the body’s evaporation system, and we’ll be fine.”

In humid conditions, however, there is no evaporation, which impedes the body’s ability to cool itself. “That is when we have to rely more on pouring water on our bodies and cooling it down from the outside and drinking cool liquids.”

Safety First

In addition to hydration and electrolytes, you can help the body along by wearing the right clothing.

  • Wear technical or wicking fabrics.
  • Look for specific hot-weather clothing.
  • Wear a hat or other head protection
  • Use sunscreen
  • Avoid cotton or other heavy fabrics

Lastly, choose routes with as much shade as possible and look for areas where you can stop for more water and ice. Train in the early morning or late evening hours and avoid the mid-day heat.

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