Ah, Summer running. Depending on where you live, you might love it, or you might hate it. For those in the northern part of the country, it might feel like a welcome break from a long Winter. For those in the South, it might feel like the dreaded part of the year where running feels like a massive struggle for 3-4 months. I think everyone can agree running in the high heat and humidity is not always fun, and will present some serious mental and physical challenges.
Two basic things to know
- Running in the heat and humidity requires an adaptation period. Period. For everyone. At first it will suck. It WILL get easier, and you WILL (eventually) heat-adapt. The human body is pretty amazing and can adapt to a lot.
- The rate at which you heat-adapt, and the degree to which you heat-adapt, will vary wildly from person-to-person.
How heat acclimatization works
Without fail, this time of year I start getting texts from athletes that read, “Omg, I’m so out of shape” or “I feel like I’m not improving”, “I don’t know what happened”, and “I don’t know what I’m doing wrong.” I find it can be helpful to understand what is happening physiologically – it can make you feel a little less crazy when an easy runs suddenly feels impossible and you’re left questioning all your fitness.
Running in the high heat and humidity has been called “the poor man’s altitude training”. Training through hot and humid Summers can actually make you fitter in the long run, because like altitude training, you’re conditioning your body to run with less oxygen in the air. I know some very successful coaches in southern regions of the country who swear by this! After spending a few months training in a lower-oxygen state, when Fall comes and the temperature drops, you’re going to get a supercompensation benefit.
On average, you can expect heat acclimatization to take a full two weeks, or 14 days, of daily running (if you’re going around an hour or more each time). That doesn’t mean running in the heat will feel great after two weeks – but it means your body should be more efficient running in the heat after two weeks. What you feel symptomatically – increased effort and breathing rate, maybe some dizziness and lightheadedness, lots of fatigue post-workout (AKA, struggling) – masks the very sophisticated processes that are happening under the surface! Your blood plasma volume, the stroke rate of your heart, your aerobic metabolism, your body’s self-cooling mechanisms… all of these things are changing and adapting “behind the scenes”, doing a lot of work for YOU!
Tips for running in the heat
My biggest tip for running in the Summertime is prepare, prepare, prepare. Spring and Fall are our ‘sweet spot’ windows where you can get walk out the door and head out for a run without a ton of prep or thought. Running in the Winter and Summer is not going to be like that, and you’re going to have to put a lot more thought and planning into how and when you run. (Also – a reminder to not take those beautifully mild running days for granted… they’re too brief!)
1. Become extra diligent with planning and logistics.
Sadly, in the heat of the Summer we get much smaller windows to run. As much as you can, I recommend picking either early mornings or nights to run, and sticking with your decision. If you try to run in the early mornings some days and do nights on other days, you’re going to end up shortchanging your recovery.
Become a Weather app stalker. Periods of really high humidity, heat, Summer thunderstorms… all things that can thwart your workout plans. The people I know who are most successful running yearround are those who diligently track the weather! Yes – it’s important to practice running in all conditions. But it’s it’s also important to set yourself up for success. I’ve recently become acquainted with the mobile app Dark Sky – which is WAY more detailed and accurate than the regular iPhone weather app. You can use this to help determine and predict the best times of day to run. (Particularly useful if you have a tough session on hand!)
Get creative with your running routes, if needed. Pick as shady routes as possible – even if it means doing shorter loops multiple times. If you have the ability to run by a body of water or on trails, it might be worth a short drive for some relief.
2. Invest in some good gear. I sometimes feel like you need more gear and prep to run in the Summer than you do in the Winter. The important stuff: Lots of sunscreen, a hat, and sunglasses. Light-colored, sweat-wicking gear (it’s often worth it to pay more for the good stuff). If you chafe, make sure to use lots of anti-chafe balm or cream beforehand. Some of my favorite Summer running gear is listed down below!
3. Consider pre-cooling. You can apply ice to the body or ingest ice to bring your overall body temp down prior to running. Important: you should still do your pre-run dynamic warm-up to ready your muscles and help prevent injury, and yes – this will raise your core temperature slightly. The goal of pre-cooling is not to eliminate warming completely. It’s just to help offset how warm you’ll (eventually) get. Try the frozen bandana trick: soak and freeze a bandana (or three) in your freezer for a few hours or overnight. Prior to running, tie the bandana around your neck, head, and/or wrists. These will help to bring your overall body temp down. Women can stick a few ice cubes down your sports bra for the same effect. They will melt as you run. And you can also try an “ice slushy” pre-run. Blend a cup of filtered water with a couple cups of ice, and drink with a straw. For extra electrolytes, you can sub Pedialyte or Gatorade for the cup of water.
4. Perfect your hydration strategy. A hydration strategy includes hydrating pre-run, during your run, and post-run. Pre-run we want to set ourselves up for success. During the run we want to help offset some of our heavy sweat loss. Post-run we want to replenish and repair. Runners who are used to gutting out long (or short) runs without water should realize everything goes out the window during the Summer. Yes – it takes some planning and preparation, and that can be annoying. Yes – it can be annoying to have to ‘hold’ something as you run. But it can have an enormous impact on how you feel and your performance during your run, as well as how you recover afterwards. Two options for taking in water while running are to carry it with you, or stash it somewhere along your route. You can stash bottled water in a bush, behind a tree, or even in your mailbox (and do loops past your house).
People often get caught up with how many ounces they should be drinking per day and want a specific number. RDs I’ve worked with in the past – as well as research I’ve read – recommend drinking to thirst, monitoring the color of your urine, and not fixating on a number. The bottom line is the amount you need can vary drastically day-to-day – especially in the Summer – and it’s going to vary enormously person-to-person. There are calculations you can use, and tests you can perform to determine your unique hydration needs, but drinking to thirst and monitoring the color of your pee has been shown to be just as effective, or nearly as effective, as many of these calculations. And it’s much simpler.
Heavy sweaters and/or those prone to cramping may want to consider salt tablets for offsetting their sweat loss from running. Many of my runners have had success using these in hot-weather training and racing. All runners in training should make sure they’re taking in some form of electrolytes throughout the day. Drinking water alone is not enough to stay truly hydrated, and without electrolytes your body won’t retain all the fluids you’re taking in. Too much plain water can also dilute the content of your blood.
For more specific questions about unique hydration needs (and/or if you have any health issues that predispose you to dehydration), defer to an RD.
5. Let go of your ego on easy days. Adjust your expectations on hard days. On easy days – SLOW DOWN!!! No, really. Sloooow down. Let go of your ego, and remember that: 1) Most people will find it very difficult to actually run ‘too slow’ on their easy days. Conversely, most people run way too fast on their easy days. This means you have a much greater chance of running too fast than too slow. 2) Recognize what our goals are for easy days. To build the aerobic system, and to aid in recovery/bloodflow between hard days. View easy days as just a check in the box. If you do it, you win. If you don’t, you lose. All you have to do is show up, and run the miles.
On quality days, give yourself a range of paces to hit, vs. one specific number. This chart will help you adjust your pace for the dew point you’re running in. If numbers in general are really getting in your head, consider switching to training by effort. And always have a bail-out plan if needed. It’s better to be safe than sorry in regards to heat illness, and something is always better than nothing in running. (That’s especially true in the Summer!) Don’t get caught up in the perfectionism trap, thinking that if you can’t complete the workout ‘perfectly’ as prescribed it’s been a total waste. You’re likely still getting a lot of benefits.
6. Beware of appetite loss post-workout. It’s not uncommon to lose your appetite after hard workouts or races. It’s even more common after hard workouts or races in the heat and humidity (sometimes even after easy runs). Don’t confuse a lack of appetite as a sign you shouldn’t/don’t need to eat post-workout! Getting *something* in is always better than nothing – whether it’s liquid calories, a handful of gummies or fruit snacks, a sugary protein bar that you have on hand and can stomach.
7. Cut yourself some slack, and know that you don’t always need to be a hero. For Type A runners who derive a lot of their enjoyment and satisfaction from hitting ‘normal’ splits and certain mileage – it’s easy to let Summer running to feel defeating. My biggest piece of advice is to cut yourself some slack, acknowledge that your body is working really hard for you, and take ‘breaks’ where you can get them. You don’t get a medal for running in 80+ degrees and 90+% humidity. If it’s going to dangerously hot and humid – OR if you just need a break – run inside on the treadmill! The treadmill is a great tool, and you’re no less of a runner for using it.
Favorite Summer running gear
- Water-carrying solutions – I’ve crowdsourced favorites from runner friends and athletes over the years, and these have been the most commonly recommended:
- For a vest style – Nathan VaporHowe
- For a handheld style – Nathan SpeedDraw Plus Insulated Flask (it also has a large pocket for storing gels)
- For carrying on your back – Orange Mud HydraQuiver Single Barrel (sits on your very upper back, is easy to grab, and doesn’t bounce!)
- For multi-hour runs or long runs “off the grid” – Many ultra runners I know swear by Ultimate Direction water packs
- Sunscreen – I am all about Supergoop since discovering them this year. It’s a “clean”/nontoxic sunscreen brand that’s good for the environment, and I’ve found it holds up really well while working out. I use the Unseen Sunscreen for everyday and for runs 40 minutes and under, and the PLAY Everyday Sunscreen for longer runs/periods of sun exposure.
- Running sunglasses – Goodr makes great super affordable running sunglasses that won’t slip down your face, even when you sweat. Tracksmith makes a great, pricier – but luxurious – option.
- Anti-chafe gel – A few favorites are Body Glide (sold at most running stores), and Squirrel’s Nut Butter and Megababe Thigh Rescue (for natural/nontoxic options).
- Salt chews – My athletes who are heavy sweaters have had great success with SaltStick Fastchews. They’re a great, portable electrolyte option and can help prevent muscle cramping or dehydration-related issues down the road.
- Electrolyte mixes – Skratch Labs, Liquid IV, and Nuun are three favorites of mine as well as runner/coaching friends’. Everyone’s stomachs are going to be unique in what they can handle, what settles what, and what feels and tastes good. I recommend buying sample packs of as many different brands and flavors as possible and testing them all to see what works for YOU.
- Post-run clean-up – Megababe makes Shower Sheets (bonus: they’re biodegradable), Ursa Major makes my favorite face wipes, and I love Lush’s all-natural body sprays. All of these products are great for stashing in your running bag and freshening up post-workout on the go (or tiding you over in between showers).