8 Summer Running Lessons from Training in the Swamp of Washington, DC

“There just isn’t much that can be done about the weather but embrace it and realize it wont last forever.”  – @RunsforBeers

Summer Running

Summer running can be wonderful: the hot sun mercilessly beating down on you as you struggle through 80% humidity and record high temperatures… wait, huh?

The brutal weather that’s rocked the East Coast of the US during the last several weeks has reminded many runners that summer running isn’t all lollipops and negative splits.

The runners that I coach aren’t immune to heat and humidity, either. Here’s just a sampling of their struggles:

I felt slow for the whole run and definitely felt like the whole darn run was a tempo in that heat.

A brutal run this morning in the heat. Man, I can’t wait until we get beyond these temperatures.

Is it cool that I go a bit slower in these nutty conditions? The heat has been oppressive.

Indeed, it’s beaten me up, slowed me down, tired me out, and has me wishing for fall. But nevertheless, I still had a good month in June. I ran 258 miles but only two “real” long runs of 16 and 17 miles. June had me traveling quite a bit for family and friends so my weekend long runs suffered. Nevertheless, I was still able to get in five solid mid-distance runs of 12 and 13 miles.

It wasn’t all about mileage last month: a weekly workout is helping me prepare for my Fall goal of a half marathon PR. These are the four workouts I ran in June:

  • 30′ progression run starting at marathon pace and ending close to 10k pace
  • 15:30 tempo run + 4 x 1′ fartlek @ 5k effort
  • 22:30 tempo run
  • 40′ progression run starting at marathon pace and ending close to 10k pace

And, as always, I ran plenty of strides, 15-30 second surges, and hill sprints. I tend to run these the day before a long run or more structured workout to “wake my legs up” and get them primed for a harder effort.

With the crazy heat recently, now’s the perfect time to remind ourselves of some valuable summer running lessons to keep ourselves comfortable, sane, and fit.

1. Now’s the time to ditch your GPS

Focus on running by feel and effort; the heat will throw your actual pace off significantly. While you may be running slower, your effort level is still about the same because of the heat and humidity. Besides, nobody wants to be demoralized by the teasing reminder of a slow pace on their watch.

So instead of checking your Garmin Forerunner every few minutes, leave it inside and (try to) enjoy the sights and sounds of summer.

2. Run in the morning to avoid the worst of summer’s hell

This is a no-brainer and it’s worth the early morning alarm. Even though the humidity is higher in the morning, you’ll experience lower temperatures and weak sunlight. If you’re a true predawn runner, you won’t have to deal with the strength of the summer sun at all.

It can be tough to motivate yourself in the morning but here are a few strategies I’ve used to get myself out of bed:

  • Use a programmable coffeemaker to have your coffee ready as soon as you wake up. There’s nothing like a fresh pot first thing in the morning!
  • Put your alarm clock out of arm’s reach so you have to physically get out of bed to shut it off.
  • Enlist the help of your spouse to make sure you get out of bed in the morning.
  • No more TV right before bed! You’ll have trouble falling asleep (because of the blue light) and will feel more lethargic in the morning.

3. Racing is a lot tougher in the summer (duh)

Instead of filling up your race calendar, focus on doing the little things, experiment with new ways of introducing variety into your running, and loosen your expectations. Unless you’re running a very early morning race and you’re in great shape, a PR is unlikely.

My strategy for summer running includes putting in more easy base mileage with fewer races and shorter workouts. Transitioning to the Washington, DC summer from Boston has been a challenge for me and it takes a few training adjustments. One of those has been to clear my race schedule in July and August.

I don’t want a repeat of my 2010 race disaster.

4. Don’t shy away from the heat and humidity all the time

Summer Heat

Your body goes through several unique changes when you adapt to the heat so it can be beneficial to run your short or mid-distance runs during the heat of the day. Be safe and make sure you have some water with you (obviously, safety is #1) and don’t go too long or hard in the heat.

A few of my favorite heat adaptations that take place during summer running are:

  • You make up to 27% more blood (performance enhancing, anyone?)
  • Heart rate decreases
  • Sweat becomes less salty as you conserve electrolytes
  • Exercise economy (efficiency) improves

For a full list of heat acclimatization adaptations, plus more interesting info in an infographic form, check out this graphic on how your body beats the heat.

5. Summer running helps you run faster!

Remember that once fall comes around, your body will be primed to run faster because of all those adaptations. Take advantage of this time to continue running! Training might seem like drudgery right now, but schedule some races in the fall and surprise yourself with a few new PR’s.

Those efficiency improvements are similar to the advantages you get from training at altitude. Not all of us can run at altitudes of 5,000 feet or higher under the supervision of a good coach, but we have the next best thing: hot summer running!

Further reading: Summer Training = Fast Fall Racing.

6. Is the burden of summer running all in your head?

Some research indicates that heat and humidity slows you down because you think it will.

A 2011 study had cyclists pedal three time trials: a control, “hot,” and “deception” time trial where they were told it was cooler than the actual temperature. And the results are startling – the cyclists performed better during the deception time trial!

Alex Hutchinson, author of Which Comes First, Cardio or Weights? reviewed the study and concluded:

This [study] suggests that your beliefs about how weather affects you can actually become self-fulfilling prophecies. If you’re convinced that heat will slow you down, it will. On the other hand, maybe someone like Sammy Wanjiru (RIP) simply wasn’t burdened by the belief that heat would slow him down — which could help explain his otherwordly performance in the heat of the Beijing Olympic marathon.

Of course, summer racing is miserable and on average, times will be slower across the board. But the lesson here is to stay tough because you’re capable of more than you think.

7. Start running barefoot strides

Lush green fields and manicured lawns make me think one thing: barefoot strides.

What’s a stride you ask? 

Strides are about 100 meter accelerations done after your run on your road, sidewalk, front yard (if it’s big enough), or nearby field. Start at a jog, build to about 95% of your maximum speed, hold for 2-3 seconds, and then slow to a stop. One stride should take you 20-25 seconds.

After each stride, take a minute of walking or standing to recover. They’re meant to be fun, so enjoy the feeling of a short burst of speed in your bare feet.

8. Have a vacation coming up? Don’t forget your summer running reading list!

There are several books I highly recommend to any runner who wants to understand training a bit more:

QUESTION FOR YOU: how are you beating the heat this summer? Leave a comment below and let’s see how many good tips we can put together!

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  1. Trail running! The shade from the trees keeps me cooler, and it’s a fun change from roads all the time.

  2. Even going predawn isn’t enough to totally avoid the conditions some days – I’m finding specifically that the humidity can be worse early in the morning. But, like you’ve said, I’ve come to embrace the challenge as something that will ultimately make me stronger, and make fall racing seem much easier (and workouts nearly effortless) by comparison.

  3. Melissa says:

    Need to get back into reading mode thx for suggestions!

  4. The summer is a good time to embrace the gym, as much as many runners may hate it. But the treadmill is also just too useful to ignore. You can run on hills that last an hour or more, hit specific paces, watch TV, and enjoy the AC. Once you’re there, it’s easy to commit to a strength routine as well.

    Also, to add to the reading list, Running With the Kenyans is great.

    • Thanks for the recommendation Alex, I’ll have to check that book out. And yeah, the treadmill is always an option on those brutal days. Boring, but useful.

  5. Jenifer says:

    Reserving some of my water to pour on my head during long runs.


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