Keep cool and carry on? 4 rules for heat-exhausted runners

With the appointment of the new Marmite-like Prime Minister in the middle of the UK’s sweltering summer, it may feel impossible to be keeping a cool head. Whatever your political affiliation or views on Brexit, one thing is for certain: it is a struggle to carry on as normal in temperatures more akin to the tropics. Somehow, even if many of us look forward to being in the same temperatures when we’re on holiday, when we are at home trying to get on with our daily lives, a heatwave makes it seem utterly unbearable. Of course, there will always be those amongst you who are perfectly comfortable blissfully soaking up the hot sun. They are the same people who appear effortlessly cool on the Underground without a single bead of sweat in sight. And I shouldn’t complain when if given the choice, I will always opt for taking on the heat rather than facing cold weather because it is my personal Kryptonite. However, this summer I am failing miserably to cope with the heat when it comes to running.

The challenge of running in the scorching temperatures seems simple enough. Avoid running during the hottest time of the day by sticking to early or late runs. Dress sensibly, wear a hat and protect yourself by wearing sun cream. And of course, keep an eye on hydration by drinking plenty of water beforehand and carrying some for longer runs. For really long runs >90min, consider taking along a drink with electrolytes. If you cannot or do not want to carry a drink then plan your run strategically. Come up with a route that allows you to plant a water bottle in a place where you can pick it up again as you pass by. Sure, you may get slightly bored running a route that passes the same hiding spot several times but at least you’ve got a drink.

You would think that with all this foresight I would be pretty adept at running in the heat. And normally, I do cope quite well while running in hot climates. However, I have learned the hard way that you should never leave home unprepared or underestimate how quickly the heat can overwhelm you.

Last week the temperatures hit a very humid 35°C on the day of my long run. But I was stubbornly determined to fit it into what was turning out to be a busy day. With the morning quickly passing and evening plans made, my only free window to go for a run became available around 11.30am. With no time to lose, I didn’t give much thought to the sunny weather. Other than to wear sun cream and grab a hat, I quickly headed out the door. As I set out, it suddenly occurred to me that maybe I should have taken a water bottle. But as I ran further away from home, the easier it was for me to convince myself that I would be fine. After all, it wasn’t going to be a difficult run. It was my usual out and back long route and it was always pretty shady.

Of course, as I ran and it began to hit high noon, the shade quickly disappeared. I could feel that I was starting to get dehydrated and was very thirsty. Just a little bit longer, I thought, and I would reach the half-way point. Then it would be plain sailing running home again to where I could get a big glass of water or two. As I continued to run, I became even thirstier and felt like I was starting to run out of steam. Ignoring this, I ploughed ahead on the dusty trail, rationalising to myself that I was absolutely fine. I was almost half-way there and it was the only chance I had to fit in my long run all week. What was I going to do? Stop? Turn around? Don’t think so!

Finally, I made it to the half-way turning point and knew that things would start to get easier for me as I ran closer and closer to home and to as much water as I could drink. Or so I thought but unlike my other runs, it very rapidly got worse.

Rather than plain sailing, I was a sinking ship. The longer I ran, the more terrible I felt and I spent the rest of my run rapidly ticking off a dehydration symptom list. Thirsty? Check. Headache? Check. Breathing faster than normal? Check. No energy? Dizziness? Cramp? Check, check, check! Oh no…Now what??

Well, there was only one way to get home and it wasn’t getting any cooler. I began to gear down my run to a crawling pace but after some time even that was too difficult to do. I stopped in the shade to have a rest and reassess my options. I decided to take a leaf out of the ‘Couch to 5km’ running plan but adapt it to shade rather than time. I would only run in order to get myself to every patch of shade en route where I would stop and continue walking home slowly. Of course, this stretched out my route somewhat as I zigzagged everywhere and ducked for cover like a running vampire. Even in the shade the heat was becoming unbearable but I knew I had to keep going. My mind kept wandering to what would happen if I didn’t make it home. Would some dog walker find my corpse ravaged by foxes? Or grey squirrels?! What about badgers? As I weighed up my chances against a motley gang of field mice, I spied a bush with some early blackberries. As I scoffed them down eagerly, the search for more soon became my motivation to keep running.

Eventually, after much more zigzagging, I made it to the final kms of my run. By then, I knew I would definitely make it home. Although it still felt like an eternity to reach my house where I finally stumbled onto my front door. The feeling of relief and satisfaction from reaching safety and being able to quench my thirst was indescribable. As I downed litres of water I swore to myself that I would never repeat these mistakes again. I since came up with 4 key rules of how not to become a heat-exhausted runner.

  1. Follow the usual sound advice of how to exercise safely in hot weather:

    • avoid running during the hottest time of the day
    • dress sensibly in light clothing
    • wear a hat and sun cream
    • if you don’t have access to water on your run then carry it

  2. Do not focus on your pace/time when you run in hot weather. You are more likely to be slower in hot weather and trying to fight it may make you more dehydrated as your body works harder to keep up. This is not the time to try and get a new PB. Look around and relax. It’s a nice day!

  3. Listen to your body when you are running in the heat. If you feel you are tiring out or starting to feel unwell, cut the run short or walk for a while to reassess. If you keep running when you know that you are only getting more dehydrated, you are not a hero. You are a plank!

  4. Wave the white flag and ask for help if you need it. Carrying a mobile? Ask someone to pick you up or call a taxi. Any families or cyclists around? Chances are high that they will have a drink on them and can spare something. Of course, you won’t know unless you ask them but the worst that can happen is that they say no. Dehydration can go from bad to worse very quickly so if you are in trouble, don’t delay treating it.

And a final piece of advice, trying to sustain yourself by gorging on wild berries is clearly unwise unless you can accurately identify what is and isn’t safe to eat. Unless you are 100% certain your bush tucker trial may go wrong.

One week later and the hot weather is still going strong. Despite this, I had another go at attempting the same long run. Albeit, with much trepidation and the memory of the previous disastrous run still firmly in my head. This time I took my own advice and a big water bottle in hand. I may have been sleepier running at the crack of dawn. I may have been slower in my pace and because I stopped now and then for the irresistible blackberries. But I not only completed the distance feeling great, I enjoyed it.

While we are still enjoying the summer the recipe this time has got to be for something cooling because appetites only wane in the heat. The solution has got to be two different salads to eat in the shade: Watermelon, cucumber and feta salad with raspberry vinaigrette and Cucumber, apple and melon salad with pecans.

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