Scientists and coaches have come up with many ways to help athletes cope with the heat. Some involve a process known as pre-cooling, which entails drinking icy beverages or applying ice to the skin before exercise, on the assumption that we can better withstand high temperatures outside by lowering our body’s internal or skin temperature before we start.
Other strategies emphasize heat acclimation, which is the slower process of adapting to high temperatures over the course of days or weeks. During heat acclimation, your body changes in many ways, including starting to sweat earlier and more profusely, which helps to reduce the buildup of internal heat and ease the demands on your heart.
But while many past studies have looked at the impacts of either pre-cooling or longer-term heat acclimation on exercise in the heat, fewer have compared their effects head-to-head, or examined whether you gain extra benefits from combining acclimation and pre-cooling.
In a new study, which was published last month in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, scientists at the Environmental Extremes Laboratory at the University of Brighton in England compared these two approaches to each other as well as introducing a 3rd technique which involves taking hot baths or using a hot tub post workouts. The results are pretty straightforward. Pre-cooling helps a little bit. Giving yourself at least 14 days leading up to an event time to acclimate to actual race like temperatures and conditions helps twice as much, but when combined with hot baths post some of these workouts, the effect is a much quicker acclimation and improved performance in hot conditions.
So what’s the best approach and biggest bang for your buck? Do all three!
#1 Heat acclimation: simply getting out and training in the heat. For must of us, that’s not hard this time of year. It’s hot outside, so get outside and do your training. Be prepared to see performance drop at first, but realize it will come back once you’re acclimated.
Keep in mind you need to stay extra hydrated in hot weather. I’ve heard some athletes say they try not to drink anything because they think it will teach them how to operate when dehydrated. WRONG! Instead, you need to teach your body how to take in fluid non-stop so that it can cool itself and stay as hydrated as possible. Performance starts to decline as soon as you start to get dehydrated.
If you’re not in hot conditions or you have a cool day in that 14-day window before a race, then suit up! Yes, put on layers, long sleeves, long tights if need be so that you are hot.
#2 Use the hot tub to help you acclimate quicker. Start with just 10 minutes fully submerged up to your head following a shorter run or bike. If you’re out for a training workout for over 90 minutes in the heat of the day, then you don’t need to do this. But for shorter runs, this is a great time to use this to keep the acclimation. It’s a good time to stretch post workout as well. You’re trying to get to that feeling where you are too hot and want to get out, but then go for a few minutes longer. 10 minutes should do that trick. After you acclimate some, try to work that number up a few minutes each time, up to 20 minutes post run. Again, make sure you’re well hydrated during your run and as you get in the hot tub.
#3 Use pre-cooling on race day. There’s no need to use this during a workout, but on race day this can be a great trick. This can be in several forms.
Drinking a cold fluid.
I suggest making a slushy of your electrolyte drink in the morning of race day. Sip on that all morning.
Take a bucket or cooler of ice and some water, have a few towels that you can soak in this ice water and wrap them around your neck and head 10-15 minutes before the start of your race. You still want to do a warm up and get the blood flowing to the working muscles. Don’t think that because it’s hot you shouldn’t warm up. It might be shorter, but you still want the working muscles warm. Then try this pre-cooling to slower your body temp. It won’t be enough to completely lower the warmth in the muscles so you’ll still be ready to race, but not overheated before you start.
#4 In-race cooling.
This starts on the bike. You should have an insulated bottle so that your fluid is cold. Most likely, this will be your electrolyte or main fuel source drink on the bike. Again, I’d mix this with a bunch of ice in a blender on race morning so it’s slushy like. That will keep it somewhat cold for most of the ride. I’d fill your aero bottle up packed with ice, and the rest water.
At aid stations, grab water and refill your aero bottle, then dump the extra water on your head, neck, and chest. Most athletes don’t think water dumping should start until the run. But staying cooler needs to start on the bike. Of course, in shorter races (sprint or Olympic), this isn’t really an option unless one of your bottles is water that you can remove.Stay hydrated!! You should be sipping on fluid non-stop, alternating between water and your electrolyte drink.
On the run.
Again, stay hydrated. For longer races, I suggest running with a small bottle so you can drink between aid stations.
Drink the ice water at aid stations.
Use water dumping and put ice everywhere!
Put ice in your shorts, in your tops/bras, on your neck/back, and rub it on your head.
Dump ice water on head and neck.
Hold ice in each hand as you leave the aid station.
If it’s really hot, don’t rush aid stations. Make sure you get all the cooling aid you can.