Thursday, 19 September 2013

Training in the Asian Heat, Racing in the European Cool

For the past four months, I've been slogging it out, running on average about 9 times per week in order to prepare for Berlin Marathon, next Sunday 29 September. Apart from this being the most I've ever run, it's also been the hottest and most humid conditions I've ever trained in. I've spent many nights at the track when it's been 32 degrees Celsius, with 98% humidity. And some days have been even hotter than that. Suffice to say my preparation has been hot and wet.

Racing in Kona; a really hot day

Now, it doesn't take a sports scientist to tell you that this kind of weather will slow you down. And anecdotally, many of my Hong Kong running friends have assured me that for any PBs I run here, I can make an adjustment for about 10-30 seconds per kilometre (30 seconds / km faster brings my 10km time close to 33 minutes! Pretty happy with that!)

What is really interesting though, is that these anecdotes are supported by science. Training in the heat (if not necessarily the humidity), has been likened to the "poor man's altitude training".

To date, there have only been a few studies conducted, and even then on relatively small sample groups of elite athletes. Nonetheless, in brief, the evidence suggests that as the body tries to cool itself, blood is diverted to the skin, which over time leads to increased plasma production and an increased blood supply. Essentially, this is the same result as if you had trained at altitude. Further, as it adapts to the heat, the body becomes more efficient at cooling itself. The conclusion is that, particularly in endurance events, you are likely to stay comfortable for longer.

However, there are limits to these benefits. Any gains made by heat training may be void or even have a negative impact if you plan on racing in extremely cold temperatures. Further, because of the limited nature of the studies, it's difficult to say whether it's worthwhile for recreational runners to jump on the treadmill in all their winter gear. (I've tried this and trust me, I'm not sure it's worthwhile, if for no other reason than I felt like a fool and looked like an idiot.)

Nonetheless, as far as this sample size of one goes, I'm willing to believe, and put this research to the test; the forecast for Berlin next weekend is about 4-17 degrees celsius, so compared to Hong Kong, the conditions seem idyllic. No excuses for not running a PB then!

For more info, check out this study conducted at the University of Oregon in 2012, and this study conducted by the University of Otago.

See also The New York Times and Runners World.

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