Running in the Heat

We all have that grueling summer running story of running in the heat, the one we’ll never forget. Mine was during college, and I was home for the summer visiting my family in Indiana. It was the beginning of preparation for my senior cross country season at Arizona State. I had been getting up early to beat the Arizona heat, which by this point regularly topped out over 100 degrees.

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. 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.

Keep Tempo In Play

Running in the 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. However, 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. One of the biggest mistakes 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. Running in the heat and humidity makes longer, tempo based work is more onerous.

Tempo Running in the Heat

However, 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. Going out for a long tempo effort in high heat can quickly turn an intended 85% effort into a race effort. Instead, break that tempo effort up into shorter pieces to get the appropriate effort. This allows your body to cool throughout the workout. Otherwise your heart rate will skyrocket as it works double time to pump and cool your blood.

Joanna and Tristin running in the heat at ZAP practice.

Tempo based intervals are a great tool to have in your workout routine year round. The idea is to complete the interval distance at the effort of a tempo run. You should always feel like you could run faster or go farther. In between the intervals take short recovery. The recovery should be 50% or less of the time it took you to complete the interval. 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.

Tempo Interval Workouts

One example of this type of workout is Tempo 400’s. For this session run 3-4 sets of (4 x 1/4 mile 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.

Another example is 6-8 x 1/2 mile 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. If you’re coupling that with high intensity speed workouts every week the risk of burn-out, injury, and/or plateauing rises dramatically.

Use Effort for Running in the Heat

Being able to focus more on effort than on pace is an important skill, especially during the summer months. 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 and get in tune with the feedback your body is providing you. Fartleks are designed to be effort based with the pickups based on duration rather than distance.

You can take that structure to the next level by not even timing the workout. Determine ahead of time the number of pickups you’ll do during the run and use landmarks as starting and stopping markers. 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 is to do a hill workout. Hills provide the aerobic benefit of a speed workout without the quantitative feedback that can shake your confidence in the stifling summer heat. Hill running also helps improve running mechanics. They strengthen your legs with far less impact stress than running fast on a flat surface.

Hill Workouts

One of the best ways to mix up your routine any time of the year is a descending duration hill workout. For example, find a moderately steep hill (3-4% incline) 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. Begin this session conservatively so you can get a little bit farther with each set.

In order to effectively navigate running in the heat of the summer recovery is paramount. Keep easy days easy by listening to your effort and not your pace. The same rule applies for your hard days. Effort determines how we get better. You’ll make much bigger gains and have more for race day if you keep the workouts a bit easier in the summer heat.