My work has recently taken me out of the rather variable South African winter weather into the totally opposite running conditions of the Middle East. These are not simply adverse, but extreme. Temperatures soar to over 40 degree with humidity up in the 60 and 70%. Even when running in the evening when it tends to be cooler and less humid the challenges are great. While it is possible to adapt to heat, the general consensus is that you can only ever learn to manage humidity.
What follows are observations of how we react to the extremes of conditions and their effect on our training intensity, which is then determined by the mind.
While even ‘old guys’ in Durban go bare-chested with only shorts, socks, shoes and jiggling pectoral muscles in such humid conditions – the cultural norms in the Middle East region require tops. It’s so hot that even freshly-washed jeans dry in minimal time.
The trouble is so does your body especially at altitude where the loss of fluid is not so easily noticed until you notice that your urine starts to look like dark mahogany varnish! Worse still the light berg type winds of the Red Sea sap the body as if air-drying biltong.
In these conditions hydration and energy is vital, and needs good planning.
Runners are a rare breed in many of the cities I visited, as are suitable energy and hydration drinks, making the choice of travel supplies an important consideration.
Keep in mind that although sachets of Hydrassist and 32GI Chews may not be considered dangerous by security, they can also become inquisitive over ‘food’ contents.
Neither the energy crammed chews nor the small potent hydration sachets add much to the weight so carrying 15 or 20 of each is not a major concern providing security understands they are for personal use.
Gels are not an option not only because of the weight but also security regulations limit the amount of products with fluid, gel, or creams.
Of course in adverse conditions it is important to try to commence each run in a fully hydrated state. Given the prevalence of Arabic coffee offered in Middle East meetings this is often a challenge by itself.
That aside carrying a small empty plastic bottle, combined with frequent stops at garages or drinking taps is by far the easiest solution to hydration. The empty container is light and can be sandwiched between your shorts waistband and the arch of the lower back. As the weight is minimal it will stay there between stops.
At each drink stops simply put a small amount of hydrassist into the bottle, add water, and shake. By rolling the top of the sachet over you can protect remainder of the contents for the next or subsequent stops. In all each sachet can be shared over about a litre of fluid as the dilution can be greater on the run than you would normally use post training.
Keep in mind that training in these severely adverse conditions results in higher rates of exertion, faster build up of heat, and poorer cooling, particularly in high humidity.
One problem is that when we start the pace can seem quite reasonable, but because the heat does not dissipate core temperature increases and so the same pace later in the race is at a higher physical intensity.
Cooling occurs when sweat is evaporated from the skin. It is this evaporation that cools the skin and the mind uses skin temperature as the indicator of comfort. Unfortunately in hot and humid conditions the sweat drops off the skin, but it does not evaporate giving the cooling effect. As we continue to run the heat we generate from this exercise remains within the body pushing up core temperatures.
Although the running speed required to reach the 40c degree core temperature that is associated with heat exhaustion is faster than most people will be able to sustain we experience a number of fatigue signals and warning signs as the core temperature increases.
These include dizziness, weakness in legs, nausea, and shortness of breath. Keep in mind that a loss of fluid means less available blood to carry oxygen to the muscles.
Taking on board vast amounts of water simply doesn’t get absorbed, nor taste good. The overall alkaline nature of Hydrassist helps to buffer the higher acid levels from intense running, and the electrolytes assist in the absorption of the fluid from the gut into the body.
Often this will not do much to improve the cooling, but will help to reduce the levels of dehydration.
The actual risk of heat exhaustion is relatively low in training as the mind will use the side effects and warning signals to reduce or stop exercise before there is any damage incurred.
In a highly motivated situation, where the desire to achieve a goal is extremely high, the runner can to some extent over-ride or ignore some of the warning signals and then the risk of heat exhaustion increases. The longer the event, and hence the longer the mind has to ignore the signals, the less the risk of heat exhaustion. So the highest risks are with shorter, higher intensity races of say 4 to 10km distances.
Body size is also a consideration in this with larger runners at more risk than their small lightweight counterparts.
Energy also becomes a compromise. Taking bottles of pre-mixed energy drinks is not an option as this would limit the amount of energy drink that could be taken on the run.
By carrying a sachet of 32GI chews you extend the energy supply, and again it is better to take a small amount more frequently than the whole packet, or even a whole chew, at one time.
This is even more important in hot conditions as the amount of available fluid is limited. Keep in mind that in ideal conditions you would want about 250 to 350ml of fluid with every 25 grams of energy chew. Taking highly concentrated energy in large quantities tends to divert an already compromised system to digestion and this further reduces your cooling ability. By taking smaller doses of energy this effect is reduced. Clearly for shorter training runs it is better to take the energy in before commencing. Again this is where the 32 GI Chews work extremely well as they can be eaten with water in the hour prior to starting without the fear of a sugar spike that would then result in a corresponding nose-dive to low sugar levels.
In fact the 32 GI chews are a very useful and convenient snack for any travelling. Often when travelling through a hectic schedule of multiple of flights, and cities finding something attractive to eat or drink can be a challenge. Having a packet of chews in my computer bag has put the cravings of an empty stomach to rest on more than a few occasions. Certainly they are a much better substitute than the packet of crisps or chocolate available at a snack bar while entrapped in the airport lounge.
One of the primary concepts to acknowledge when running in hot and humid conditions is how much slower you need to go to maintain your normal training intensity. The tendency to go off too fast will soon come back to haunt the over ambitious. Its worth keeping in mind that the effects of running in really hot conditions increase on an exponential scale so while the initial increase in difficulty is relatively slow, towards the end of the run, there is a sharp increase in effort towards the end of the run due to the accumulation of temperature.
Cold weather running:
At first sight the situation in cold weather running would then be the opposite, but in fact runners in sub zero temperatures can face similar problems.
Not surprisingly when running in really cold conditions runners tend to layer their clothing and often the top layer is a windproof jacket and leggings.
The effect of wearing both a windproof top and bottom clothing is to create a hot and very humid ‘micro climate’ between the body and the outer layer. This has a similar dehydrating and core warming effect as the Middle East environment, but the signals to the brain are lowered as the cold wind and weather on exposed skin and the visual signals tell a different story to what is going on around the chest and legs.
The point is that it is certainly possible to dehydrate in winter, and the fact that you feel cool means that you are able to sustain a greater intensity of exercise for longer. However it is important to look at what you eat and drink in cold weather and to make sure you re-hydrate when you have finished the run.
During 1997 Paul Selby (of South African 1000km Challenge fame) visited me in Edinburgh and we went for a long run around the Pentland hills in the winter snow. With virtually every area of skin covered we fought off a biting wind that took the temperatures down to well below zero.
By the end of the run the sweat on our Balaclavas (full face hats) had frozen but inside the windproof jackets our t-shirts and thermal tops were drenched with sweat. We had lost litres of fluid in the hot and humid conditions created between the jackets and our body. It took a substantial amount of fluid to bring urine levels back to normal clarity.
On those occasions that you venture out without windproof garments only to find that you are struggling to keep warm, remember that your carbohydrate requirements will increase. This is not only because you will tend to be running faster and so be using a higher percentage of carbohydrate per minute, but also because of the energy used as your body fights to keep warm.
This latter requirement becomes obvious the minute you stop during the run. The combination of sweat and a cool breeze soon have your body shivering and shaking in an attempt to warm up: This takes additional energy and it is only when you have done a long cold training run that you appreciate just how ravenous this can make you.
No matter whether you run in hot or cold conditions be aware of your fluid and energy needs, and one of the best ways to appreciate just what these are is to experience the extreme of conditions.