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Summer is Coming: Here’s How to Stay Safe While Running in the Heat

Grab your sunscreen, water, and these expert tips to make summer running bearable.

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There are a lot of variables in a workout you can control: pre and post fueling, hydration, distance, pace, route. The list could go on. One thing you can’t control is the weather. But you can control your perspective and preparation, especially as it starts to heat up across the country in the summer months.

Rita Gary, Furman track and cross-country assistant coach, shares her top tips for how to train smart and safe in hot conditions.

Review Your Plan

Every workout has a purpose or a primary objective. Maybe you are working on hill strength, practicing pace, getting used to being able to run fast in hot weather or keeping your footing on a different terrain. First identify what you are trying to accomplish, and then try to set up an environment and training session that helps you achieve your workout goal. Typically, you want to have your workout session during the most temperate or cooler part of the summer day. “It’s not crazy for us to get up at six am and meet for practice, just so we can get it out of the way before the heat of the day,” says Gary. Planning your summer running routes around shade can also provide some relief. 

If you need to modify a run because of extreme heat, try to keep the spirit of your primary objective. “You don’t want to change what you want to get out of the run,” says Gary. If your plan was originally to run eight miles and that typically takes you an hour, your focus on a hot day might be 60 minutes of running even if your pace is slower and you don’t go the full eight miles. “It’s more of a time on feet versus a mileage focus because you’re still getting the same stimulus, it’s just a little bit easier,” she says. 

However, Gary is also a big advocate for pushing the limits in extreme conditions. “You know as long as it’s not a crazy condition that you’re literally putting your body in jeopardy, I think it’s okay to circle a couple of hard days on the calendar and practice doing hard things under different circumstances,” she says. Especially if you are training for a race that is likely going to land on a hot day, you’ll need to practice in those conditions. “You should be able to get a certain level of performance out of yourself regardless of the condition,” says Gary. “That, to me, shows mastery.”

Warm Up When It’s Already Warm

It takes muscles less time to warm up when it is warm outside, so consider shortening the kind of warm up routine you’re used to doing for winter runs. On race day, the Furman runners will traditionally do a 20-minute shakeout run. But if it’s hot out, Gary says they will cut that routine in half.

Sip Smart

If it is a warm day, be sure you are well-hydrated before you head out the door. If you are going on a run longer than 30 minutes, bring water or a hydration drink with you and stop to sip along the way. 

During the competitive season, Gary gives her team the gallon challenge: “Everyone gets a gallon of water and the goal is to carry the gallon around with you and drink one gallon a day.” Especially in areas of high humidity where you’re going to sweat a lot, you want to get ahead of that fluid loss. “You can’t really make up for hydration in a day,” she says. “It’s got to be an ongoing practice of just getting the right pieces in place.”

Gary also advises against drinking really cold water. “In terms of quick hydration, having it at room temperature your body will actually absorb it a bit faster.”

Dehydration combined with strenuous activity can cause heat exhaustion. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the symptoms include confusion, heavy sweating, nausea, high heart rate, headache, muscle cramps, and dizziness. If your body temperature rises to 103 F or higher after a run or you stop sweating, there is risk of heatstroke and medical attention should be sought immediately.

Master Your Cool Down

The human body — especially in the case of athletes — is designed to regulate body temperature naturally. But if you need a little help cooling down after a run due to heat exhaustion or just to get comfortable, Gary recommends a frozen washcloth or cooling towel. Wrap them around your neck or your wrists to cool your system down quickly. Running your wrists through cold running water can do the trick as well. 

Know Your Limits

Running in the heat can certainly be a safety issue, if you don’t plan accordingly. It’s a delicate balance between pushing your body to become better and using common sense about what is too much. Set yourself up for success. “If you’re running in Phoenix, Arizona at three o’clock in the afternoon in July and you start to go cross-eyed,” Gary shares as an example, “maybe you should take it down a notch.”

But beyond preparing physically to run in the heat, runners should prepare mentally. Add perspective to your workout checklist. “How are you framing this challenge and how can it make you a better runner?” Asks Gary, “You could ask yourself that of any of the circumstances you’re presented and chances are you can find a way for it to help.”