Running in the heat and humidity of summer presents a lot of challenges to runners. The constant sweat, the tough workouts, and the scorching sun make summer training difficult. I know that I had to cut a few workouts short because of the heat and humidity here in the Washington, DC area.
But now the temperatures are dropping and it’s noticeably dryer outside. You’ll no longer find the humidity creeping up toward 90% anymore. Running is easier now!
Now that’s summer is mostly behind us, there lies a huge opportunity to benefit from training through those brutal summer days. Now that it’s fall, we can reap the rewards of all that hard work we put in from June-August.
I’m not talking about the fitness you gained from your workouts. I’m talking about the fitness you gained from the heat and humidity.
When we were all training through summer, we were simulating the effects of running at altitude. Running “at altitude,” or at elevations generally higher than 5,000 feet above sea level, is much harder because there’s not as much oxygen in the air.
This is great news for all of you stubborn runners who stuck with their scheduled run even though it was 90 degrees and humid. You not only got the fitness benefits of your run, but also the added benefits of simulating altitude.
What’s so Good About Running at Altitude (or, Running When It’s Hot and Humid)?
At altitudes higher than 5,000 feet (like Denver, CO), your cardiovascular system has to work harder to run the same pace that would normally have been easier for you at sea level. There’s simply less oxygen in the air and your heart has to beat faster to pump more blood to your working muscles.
After you acclimatize to higher elevations, your body produces more red blood cells. These cells transport oxygen to your muscles. This is why Sherpas who have lived at high altitude their whole lives can climb Everest with no oxygen.
Heat training can provide similar benefits. Running when it’s hot and humid won’t force your body to produce more red blood cells, but a host of other biochemical changes occur that make you more efficient. Runner’s World’s Coach Jenny (who runs the popular “Ask Jenny” Q&A column) recently noted that her summer heat training helped prepare her for the TransRockies stage race at altitude. She said:
“Coming from sea level in Chicago, I was a little concerned about racing at altitudes of 9,000 to 11,000 feet all week. I had the help of Mother Nature this summer with the tremendous and consistent heat and humidity that can simulate the effort at altitude. In other words, my heart had to work harder in the heat and humidity (90s with 90 percent humidity) and closely simulate that of the effort of running at altitude. And although the heat doesn’t help acclimatize to altitude, it does help strengthen the heart and cardiovascular system.”
I talked to Mark Coleman who writes at FoCo Runner, and he says that heat limits the use of oxygen in the body (altitude just limits the supply of oxygen). Mark says that, “Heat causes body temperature to rise out of the optimum range for metabolic chemical reactions (and other biochemistry) to function normally.”
After an adaption period of a few weeks, your body will get used to running in the scorching heat. You’ll release less electrolytes in your sweat and regulate your temperature more efficiently. You’ll be better suited to avoid dehydration.
These adaptations give you an advantage to racing in cool weather.
Last weekend, I raced an 8k in downtown Washington, DC. It was a cool morning and I was looking forward to running fast. But I didn’t think I was in great shape. My weekly mileage wasn’t as high as it was in July and my workouts weren’t that spectacular.
But I ran 26:34, only 15 seconds from my personal best, closing the last mile in 5:04. I was surprised I ran so fast and how relatively easy it was. I’m convinced that the hard workouts and long runs I did during the DC summer helped give me an edge.
So what does this mean for you? If you worked hard over the summer and acclimated to the heat, your body is more efficient right now. It can cool itself more effectively with less energy and resources. Your cardiovascular system also doesn’t have to work as hard as you once did when it was 90+ degrees.
Take advantage of this time of year and your new efficiency! Get out there and race – you may just surprise yourself.
Have you raced recently and ran a surprisingly fast time? Do you think running through hot and humid conditions makes you faster?
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