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The Heat Is On: Stay-Cool Summer Running Strategies
Just in time for the rising thermometer, check out these hacks to make exercising in hot weather a little less brutal.
Ryan McGrath knows a thing or two about running in the heat. The seasoned athlete lives in Baltimore, MD, where a summer day often means 90 degrees and 70 percent humidity. Training in such conditions is tough, but after many years of practice, the 39-year-old has his “beat the summer heat” system dialed in.
Likewise, Leah Williams, owner and founder of &Running fitness studio in nearby Fulton, MD, understands the challenges of these conditions. She applies her tried and true tricks for acclimating to the summer heat to her own running as well as to the clients she coaches.
If you’re planning on breaking a sweat outdoors this summer and wondering the best way to keep cool while you’re at it, there’s no one better to ask than fitness pros who know all the tricks for battling seasonal extremes. Follow their advice to get your body ready for summer running.
There are several working theories on how long it takes the body to acclimate to higher temps, but Williams says it can take as long as four weeks. “Some years you get to ease into it a bit and the process might not take more than a couple of weeks,” she says. “But sometimes the heat comes out of nowhere and it’s just going to take longer to adjust.”
When you’re going through this acclimation period, it’s important to be flexible about your performance. Don’t expect to hit your normal splits. In fact, says McGrath, the transition period to summer running is an opportunity to switch over to running by feel, not pace. “I adopted a zero-focus policy when it comes to pace in the summer,” he says. “I do everything by time and effort. If not, by the time fall rolls around and the temperatures cool, you’ve cooked yourself.”
Williams co-signs on this approach. “Let your body slow down and stay at a very easy, conversational pace,” she recommends. “If you do it the right way, it will prep you for optimal racing come fall.”
Dress the Part
To keep your energy level high during summer running, less is always more with your clothing choices. Think loose-fitting tank tops and breathable, moisture-wicking shorts that will keep you drier and cooler. McGrath is a fan of sunscreen and a hat, too, to keep the sun from damaging your skin. And when it’s oppressively hot and humid, don’t be afraid to take it down to just a sports bra, either.
Or stay up late. Either way, getting out of the sun’s direct rays is a good idea. The sun warms you and everything around you up—the temperatures radiating off the pavement and the air surrounding you are all higher when the sun is up. McGrath switches his summer runs from morning to evening. “For me, the humidity is the toughest element and it is highest right before dawn,” he explains. “I’m a big ‘after 6 p.m.’ runner in the summer.” If your only option is mid-day, consider cutting the miles short or taking things inside to the treadmill on the hottest or most humid days.
What you eat and drink will always impact your running, either negatively or positively. But in the summer, both become more important. “Make sure you drink before you leave the house,” says Williams. “Also when it’s hot, think about replacing electrolytes.” Everyone’s stomach is different, so try a few electrolyte replacement options on shorter excursions before taking one on a long run. Consider salting your post-run food, too, as salt is an electrolyte and will help your body retain water better. If you are exercising at a moderate pace for less than an hour, you’ll likely be OK waiting to drink until you get home. But if you’re going out for a hard run, or medium to long run, it’s a good idea to either carry a drink with you or stash one along your route and run loops so you can have easy access to it.
As much as you love running, remember that not every workout needs to be a run. In fact, you’ll do your body a favor by adding in other forms of training. McGrath, who’s also a triathlete, puts in more miles on his bike or in the pool during the warm months. “If it’s brutally hot out, I can go out for a long bike ride and have fewer challenges than with a 30-minute run,” he says. “Or I’ll ride my bike and throw in a very short run after.”
Shorten Things Up
Maybe you typically use summer to prep for some longer distance racing in the fall, and that’s fine. But there’s also value in using summer to try some shorter runs where you drop in burst of fast paces. During the pandemic summer of 2020 when most races were canceled, that’s just what McGrath and friends did. “We took a less-is-more attitude,” he says. “We ran a track series with some really short options. In the fall when we all ran longer virtual races, lots of us found we were faster.”
Find the Silver Lining
Yes, it’s hard to run in the summer heat and humidity. But staying consistent throughout the summer months means by fall you will be stronger in mind and body. “If you can make it through summer, you’ll know that you can make it through future challenging runs, no matter what the conditions,” says Williams.
McGrath, who runs most of his races in the fall, finds that if he approaches his summer running right, he’s rewarded with good results in the cooler temperatures. “There are a million races to choose from, but if you train right through the summer, you’ll be fit in the fall,” he says. “The day that humidity first disappears, you’re good to go.”