The summer of 1988 was one continuous heat wave in Toronto.
My decision to write about hot-weather training and racing this week just might be an ironic and bitter reaction to Vancouver’s depressing non-summer. I’ve felt awfully lethargic in all my workouts for a week now. I wondered: Is it possible, with my puny training schedule, that I’ve actually managed to overtrain? No, it’s more likely that I need sun and warmth to thrive.
If I can’t have heat I’ll reminisce about it.
It’s true that the summer of 1988 was way too hot (and I’ll get to the coping strategies soon), but first I have to wax nostalgic about Toronto summers. For those of you who’ve never lived in a hot place, do you know that you sweat completely differently once the air reaches a certain temperature? And when your body becomes a well-adapted machine for performing at that temperature, you can actually enjoy this kind of sweating. Instead of sweating in only the obvious places, like armpits and the nape of the neck and clothing contact points, after a few minutes of running every pore in your skin opens up, and soon you’re covered in a shiny liquid sheen. And the sweat does its job. Whether you’re running into an actual breeze or just creating air resistance, your sweat will help your body keep its core temperature at a safe level.
But there are temperatures when distance running can’t be enjoyable; it becomes a test of will, cunning, and survival strategies. The summer of 1988 was often like that.
In 1988, Paul and I were living with George Gluppe in a small house near Earl Bales Park, with its giant ski hill, wooded ravine trails and adjacent golf course. It was an ideal place to run in the morning, and we tried to stay out of the reach of golf balls and the golfers who tried to chase us (futilely) on their carts.
Our bedroom was on the west side of the house, so it received full sun all afternoon and evening. The room became completely uninhabitable that summer. Sweating while running is one thing; lying in a pool of sweat while you’re motionless on a bed is another thing. Paul and I dragged some futons down into our cool basement weight room, and there we slept for the entire summer.
The most difficult workout to do in the heat was a cornerstone of my 10,000m preparation: 6 x 1 mile with 2 minutes’ rest. This was our traditional Saturday morning workout. We had to change the start time to 7 a.m. At that hour the sun was far from its reaching its full strength; even so, this workout was particularly challenging that summer. Dave Reed would often come to the workout directly after driving his taxi all night. He had a good excuse for seldom completing more than four of the mile repeats, but I always struggled through six. We ran on a gravel track to spare our bodies some of the impact of such a long workout. I remember being terribly discouraged after some of those workouts, because my usual 5:12 average time slowed to a mediocre 5:22. But part of coping with training in hot weather is accepting that your body can’t perform at the same level.
It’s the same with racing long distances in the heat. You have to be more cautious with pacing than usual. 10K runners usually try to complete the distance at an even pace; usually it’s possible to sprint at the end of the race, because the body hasn’t yet depleted its anaerobic energy systems. However, in hot weather, as your body’s core temperature rises throughout the race, it’s more likely that you’ll have to slow down. Starting the race out at your regular pace could make the subsequent drop-off in pace much worse.
I’ve found from experience that by far the most significant factor affecting how well I race in heat is how much I’ve trained in heat. When I lived in Toronto, where the summers were usually hot, I always raced well in hot situations, as least in comparison with my competitors. Being small is an advantage. It was always hot at the Falmouth 7.1-mile race but I ran well there several times. Another race where heat was frequently a factor was the mini-marathon 10K in New York City. I was 3rd there in 1983 and had other top-ten performances over the years.
In contrast, after I moved to Vancouver in 1990, I had a lot of trouble competing in hot weather when I travelled back East during the summer. There was one race I did several times as a masters runner: the Buffalo 4-Mile Chase. The race started at 6 p.m., and it was always brutally hot. That race was a sufferfest for me every time. I would finish the four miles in a (barely) respectable time, feeling dreadfully sick and knowing that I couldn’t have possibly run another two miles to complete a 10K. The race organizers did everything they could to help the runners; there were huge containers filled with bags of ice in the finish area, and every finisher got a glass of ice-cold beer.
The single most important thing you have to do to race well in heat is to train in hot conditions for at least a few weeks. If you are unable to do that, try to make your training sessions as hot as possible by training in the sun at the hottest time of day, and wearing extra clothing. Some serious competitors will go so far as to run on a treadmill in a sauna. This may be necessary for ultrarunners planning to compete in extremely long and hot events, such as the Badwater 135-mile race. Personally, I would never be willing to sacrifice all my enjoyment of running by training in such a miserable way.
What else can you do to mitigate the difficulty of distance running in heat?
- Stay out of the sun on the day before the race and on race day.
- Stay adequately hydrated.
- Douse yourself with water immediately before the race.
- Pour water over your head at every water station.
- As mentioned above, start cautiously. Be confident that you will pass flagging competitors in the final stages of the race.
I had an extra coping strategy during the summer of 1988. My secret weapon: Diet Coke! I hate it now and hated it then. But with the Olympics coming up, I didn’t want the sugar calories of regular Coke. Many days, I did double workouts; a running workout in the morning, and a stationary bike workout in the afternoon. For my second workout, I’d ride my bike 5 km or so to my fitness club, and force my tired legs through the hardest 45 minutes or so I could manage on the Lifecycle. Then it was back out into the sun for the ride home. Almost invariably, I would stop at a convenience store one kilometre from my house, buy a 1-litre bottle of Diet Coke, and chug it down immediately.
I don’t have to take such extreme measures in Vancouver; in fact I can’t even imagine being thirsty enough here to inhale a bottle of Diet Coke!
Olympic Training Log
June 11, 1988
AM: Did Lifecycle workout at club. Feeling really bad today—binged on bad food last night. Did first session level 6, level 9 at end, hen level 9 (warmup), Level 7 (test), level 6 (hills), level 9 (warmdown).
June 12, 1988
AM–PM: Did 100 km Ride for Heart—actually a bit more than 100 km with wrong turn. Rode quite hard, but had to stop a couple times—legs tired last hour.
June 13, 1988
AM: Rode bike to club, did “pull-strength-endurance” workout 60 min. followed by 10 min on stationary bike. Rode home. Ran 16 min in Earl Bales at fairly good pace. Felt constant slight pain in heel but no pain after or late in day.
PM: Swim workout with Beth. 800m easy warmup—last 400 accelerating every 25m. 4 x 200m with 30 sec. rest. Times 3:50, 3:58, 3:54, 4:01 (1st & 3rd supposed to be harder.) Then did 4 x 100m, breathing every 3rd strong (1st one), 5th stroke (2nd one), 7th stroke (3rd), 3rd stroke (4th). Couldn’t work hard—not getting enough air—over 2 min. 300m warmdown. Tried a little kicking with board—hopeless! Arms dead tired by end, very sleepy and relaxed after.
June 14, 1988
AM: Did bike workout at gym. Lifecycle 24 min level 6 and level 9 at end. 8 sets of 3 min on bike, hamstring curls, situps. Legs very fatigued on intervals—still tired from Sunday. Rode to gym and back.
PM: Rode 90 min up north—enjoyed ride but very hot.
June 15, 1988
AM: Rode to gym, did “push-strength-endurance” workout, 69 min. Rode home. Ran in Earl Bales 22 min, working very hard because of heat. Foot hurt between 2–5 min, but warmed up quite well—no pain after.
PM: Swim workout at North York pool—Beth busy. Had good workout—pool almost empty. 1050m warmup 21:44. 10 x 100m going every 2½ min. Times 1:52, 1:54, 1:53, 1:54, 1:56, 1:56, 1:55, 1:57, 1:57, 1:57. 4 x 50m going every 1:15. Arms exhausted.
June 16, 1988
AM: Rode bike to gym. Did Lifecycle level 6 and level 9 24 min. 8 sets 3 min bike, forward sitting press, side leg-raises. Very tired today—had to keep tension low on bike.
PM: Rode stationary bike 30 min. Legs totally exhausted—had to reduce tension every 3 –5 min, to ridiculously low level.
AM: Rode bike to pool. Swim 1,800m 38:55. Rode home. Did 26-min run in Earl Bales—heel quite sore first 5 min. Exhausted today.
This week: 9 miles, running, 3hr4min stationary bike, 2 long bike rides, 3 swim workouts, 2 weight workouts.