We all have that grueling summer running story, the one we’ll never forget. Mine was during college, and I was home for the summer visiting my family in Indiana. At the beginning of preparation for my senior cross country season I had been getting up early to beat the Arizona heat, which by this point regularly topped out over 100 degrees. Now I grew up in the oppressive heat and humidity of the Midwest, but after the scorching temperatures in Arizona, I figured I should be able to handle sleeping in and running my easy 6 miles later in the morning. Of course I did, college kids don’t know anything. What followed was the slowest, most painful 6 mile run of my life. I knew I was in good shape, but afterward, as I lay sprawled on my parent’s living room floor fighting waves of nausea, I was having serious doubts.
The summer heat challenges the psyche, but if you can focus more on effort instead of pace, especially on your easy days, you’ll reap the rewards when the temperature drops. This is often easier said than done, but there are some workout tricks you can use to make it a little easier to get the most out of your summer training without running yourself into the ground.
Summer tends to be the season for shorter races, and one of the biggest mistakes we as coaches see people make when they train for shorter races is to cut out the tempo work and focus solely on speed. The tendency to gravitate toward shorter, faster workouts is compounded by the heat and humidity of the summer where longer, tempo based work is more onerous. Keeping tempo based work as a regular part of your program is critical to short-term and long-term success, even over shorter races like the 5k. And while going out for a long tempo effort in high heat can quickly turn an intended 85% effort into a race effort, you can break that tempo effort up into shorter pieces while still getting in a good workout. This will allow your body to cool a bit throughout the workout and prevent your heart rate from maxing out as it works double time to cool and propel.
Tempo based intervals are a great tool to have in your workout routine year round, and the idea is to complete the interval distance, I frequently use 1 mile intervals, feeling like you could continue to run at that pace for twice the distance. In between the intervals you should take short recovery, for mile repeats use a recovery interval of 1-2 minutes, and even when you finish the workout you should feel like you could do a few more repeats at that pace. During the warm summer months you can use shorter intervals to get the same workout while reducing the risk of over heating.
Two examples of this type of workout are: 1) 3-4 sets of (4 x 400 meter repeats) with 45-60 seconds rest between the repeats and 2-3 minutes between the sets. Start the workout 2-3 seconds per 400 slower than 5k pace and finish at 5k pace. 2) 6-8 x 800 meter repeats with 90 seconds rest between each. Start this workout 4-5 seconds per 800 slower than 10k pace and finish at 10k pace. Remember to finish each of these workouts at an effort where you feel like you could do a few more without a problem.
The tempo-based component is even more critical for people that race frequently. If you race every week or two then you are getting a very high intensity workout every time you race, and if you’re coupling that with high intensity speed workouts every week the risk of burn-out, injury, and plateauing rises dramatically.
Being able to focus more on effort than on pace is an important skill, especially during the summer months, and the best way to do that is to make the design of your workouts effort based. Fartlek running is an excellent way to forget about the pace for a while and get in tune with the feedback your body is providing you. Fartlek running is designed to be effort based and the pickups should be based on duration rather than distance. Take that structure to the next level by determining the number of pickups you’ll do during the run ahead of time and then don’t even time them, use landmarks as to where you’ll start and stop. You’ll get a great workout without the added stress of hitting predetermined paces.
Perhaps my favorite way to remove the stress of predetermined paces, especially during the summer, is to do a hill workout. Hills provide the aerobic benefit of a speed without the quantitative feedback that can shatter your confidence in the stifling summer heat. Hill running also helps improve running mechanics by strengthening your legs with far less impact stress of running hard on a flat surface. One of the best ways to mix up your routine any time of the year is a descending duration hill workout. For example, after you are warmed up and ready to run quicker find a relatively steep hill and do three sets of the following: 60 seconds uphill followed by an easy jog back to the bottom, 40 seconds uphill followed by an easy jog back to the bottom, 20 seconds uphill followed by an easy jog back to the bottom. Take 1-2 minutes rest between sets and try to start conservatively so you can get a little bit farther with each set.
In order to effectively navigate the heat of the summer in the southeast you must be sure to recover on your easy days by listening to your effort and not your pace, but it’s also important to do the same on your hard days. You’ll make much bigger gains and have more for race day if you keep the workouts a bit easier in the summer heat.
*This Article Originally Appeared in the August 2015 Issue of Running Journal