It’s summertime and the hot weather has arrived. Are you prepared for riding and training in the heat?
Before you go charging off into the blazing hot for a marathon ride, run, hike, or any other strenuous outdoor activity, make sure you are prepared for the heat and ask yourself this question:
Am I gaining any significant and lasting benefit by riding and training in the heat?
Recent research says no.
Exercise scientists, physicians, and certified athletic trainers all agree: the dangers of riding and training in excessive heat far outweigh the negligible and temporary gains that may be made. In fact, the National Athletic Trainers Association’s Position Statement on Exertional Heat Illnesses advises that while the often-touted primary benefit of training in excessive heat — heat acclimatization — “produces progressive changes in thermoregulation that involve sweating, skin circulation, thermoregulatory setpoint, cardiovascular alterations, and endocrine adjustments” the body’s adaptation to performing in hot environments can take anywhere from seven days to three months to occur and then “diminishes by day six when heat stress is no longer present.” The bottom line: you can regularly ride and train in the heat for weeks and months, develop some small but beneficial adaptations, and then lose them all in six days. That sucks.
Why is this? Riding and training in extreme heat places extra stress on the athlete’s body. Dr. Gordon Blackburn, Director of Cardiac Rehabilitation, Preventive Cardiology and Rehabilitation Program, at the Cleveland Clinic explains: “As the heart works to provide blood and oxygen to the exercising muscles, it must also shunt blood the skin where it can be cooled by the evaporation of our sweat. In addition, for every degree [of external temperature increase] the body’s internal temperature rises and the heart beats approximately 10 bpm faster. Exercise plus higher body temperatures, and the added work of shunting blood for cooling, can dramatically increase the stress on the heart during an exercise session in the heat.” The result is a workout that greatly taxes the body’s circulatory and respiratory systems resulting in reduced power output, diminished endurance, and decreased capacity to recover. All this means increased risk of heat-induced illness and negligible fitness gains for the athlete.
So, if you are going to ride and train in the heat, here are few helpful strategies for making your workouts safe and productive.
Train in the early morning or late afternoon — Training in the middle of the day exposes you to the hottest air temperatures and most intense sunlight. Ouch. Adjust your training schedule so you work out in the early morning and late afternoon when the temperatures are lower. A ten degree drop in air temperature can give you an additional 10-15 minutes of quality training time with a greatly reduced risk of heat exhaustion. Capitalize on that temperature differential!
Hydrate before, during, and after exercise — Proper hydration starts 24 hours before a training session in the heat. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the average person must consume 2.5 liters of water a day to stay hydrated. During an hour of exercise, the athlete may lose 0.8 to 3.0 liters of water. Do the math and you discover that the only way an athlete can stay properly hydrated is to constantly drink water before, during, and after exercise at a rate of 7-10 ounces every 10-20 minutes. During training sessions laster longer than 45 minutes, the National Athletic Trainers Association (NATA) recommends that athletes consume up to 8 oz. of a sports drink that contains 6% or less carbohydrates every 20 minutes. Sports drinks with carbohydrate concentrations greater than 6% are not readily absorbed by the body and are not recommended for consumption during exercise. After a training session in the heat, NATA recommends that fluid replacement be completed within two hours of the session with water to restore hydration, carbohydrates to rebuild glycogen, and electrolytes like sodium and potassium to accelerate the rehydration processes. (Editor’s note: Wow. That was really technical and exercise-sciencey. Sorry.)
Set a time limit — The hottest day of the year is not the opportunity to do your hardest and longest training ride. Don’t do it! Be modest in the training goals you set for yourself on the hottest days. Make your training session shorter than normal and also consider reducing the intensity of your workout. If you are riding, choose a route that is mostly flat. If you are running, pick a route that has lots of shade.
Modify your expectations — When you ride and train in excessive heat, you will notice a decrease in your power output, a delay in your recovery from hard efforts, and a drop in your overall endurance. Understand and accept this and adjust your workout goals accordingly.
Use sunblock — It’s no fun to be dehydrated. So, drink, drink, drink! It’s no fun to be sunburnt. So, apply sunblock before you start your training session. It’s absolutely no fun to be dehydrated and sunburnt. Dry and crispy is not good.
Wear light colored clothing — Dark colors absorb heat energy and, thus, become hot. Light colors reflect heat energy and, thus, stay cool. You can stay a little bit cooler during your training sessions in excessive heat by wearing light colored clothing.
Manage your core temperature — The human body’s optimal core temperature is 98.6 degrees F. Exercise increases the body’s core temperature due to the generation of heat from muscular activity. During exercise, our bodies use a number of cooling strategies to keep our core temperature within a range of 99 – 103 degrees F. If our body’s cooling systems are not functioning properly or have to work too hard during exercise, we risk overheating. If our body’s core temperature rises above 104 degrees F, we begin to suffer the effects of hyperthermia. This is bad. To keep our body’s cooling systems running efficiently, we must stay hydrated by drinking water and consuming electrolytes like sodium and potassium that are lost when we sweat. There are also ways to help manage your core temperature with convective cooling — the movement of air over water to accelerate evaporation — that work and feel good, too. Here are just a few:
1. Pour cold water on your head, neck, and thighs
2. Put ice under your helmet, in your running cap, under your cycling gloves, on your thighs
3. Wear a headband soaked in cold water
Don’t get suckered — Cooling sprays and pills. Cooling undershirts. Cooling arm covers. Don’t get suckered into buying something that does not work. In excessive heat, none of the ‘cooling’ products work. In fact, in excessive heat, products that claim to help keep you cool will actually make you hotter. The tried-and-true strategies for keeping you cool are described above.
Know the symptoms of heat-related illness — According to the Mayo Clinic, heat stroke is the most serious heat-related illness and can result in death. What many people do not know is that heat stroke is preceded by two debilitating, but less-serious, heat-related illnesses — heat cramps and heat exhaustion.
“Heat cramps are caused by initial exposure to high temperatures or physical exertion. Signs and symptoms of heat cramps usually include excess sweating, fatigue, thirst and cramps, usually in the stomach, arms or legs. This condition is common in very hot weather or with moderate to heavy physical activity. You can usually treat heat cramps by drinking water or fluids containing electrolytes (Gatorade or other sports drinks), resting and getting to a cool spot, like a shaded or air-conditioned area.”
“Heat exhaustion occurs when you don’t act on the signs and symptoms of heat cramps and your condition worsens. Signs and symptoms of heat exhaustion include a headache, dizziness or lightheadedness, nausea, skin that feels cool and moist, and muscle cramps. Often with heat exhaustion, you can treat the condition yourself by following the same measures used to treat heat cramps, such as drinking cool, nonalcoholic beverages, getting into an air-conditioned area or taking a cool shower. If your symptoms persist, seek medical attention immediately.”
Heatstroke symptoms include:
High body temperature – A body temperature of 104 F (40 C) or higher is the main sign of heatstroke.
A lack of sweating — In heatstroke brought on by hot weather, skin will feel hot and dry to the touch. However, in heatstroke brought on by strenuous exercise, skin may feel moist.
Nausea and vomiting
Flushed skin — Skin may turn red as your body temperature increases.
Racing heart rate
Confusion — Heatstroke will cause seizures, hallucinations, or result in the affacted person having difficulty speaking or understanding what others are saying.
Muscle cramps or weakness
If you think a person may be experiencing heatstroke, call 911 or your local emergency services number.
Take immediate action to cool the overheated person while waiting for emergency treatment:
1. Help the person move to a shaded location and remove excess clothing.
2. Place ice packs or cold, wet towels on the person’s head, neck, armpits and groin.
3. Mist the person with water while a fan is blowing on him or her.
With a little knowledge and preparation, riding and training in the heat can be done safely and successfully. Adopt these strategies and you will be equipped to handle a workout in excessive heat.
About The Author
Aaron Hanson (a.k.a The Cap’n) is manager of the Southern California Colavita – Children of War Foundation Regional Amateur Team. A 27-year veteran of the sport and lifestyle of cycling, Aaron has raced both road and mountain bikes, advocated for bicycle transportation funding and facilities at the city, county, state, and federal levels, planned and facilitated numerous bicycle events, and helped several municipalities and counties create viable bikeway master plans.
Aaron has been honored by IMBA, CORBA, Clif Bar, the City of Los Angeles, the County of Ventura, the City of Simi Valley, the United States House of Representatives, and the United States Senate for his bicycle advocacy work. He has even won a bike race or two.
Aaron can be contacted via e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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