Train Cold, Race Hot

A couple weeks ago I raced Ironman Texas. They chose to host this race near Houston on the third weekend of May. Given the fact that Houston has a nine-month summer (I know, I’m from there) I knew it would be a warm one! While I was in town, I must have had the same conversation about training more than a dozen times with the people that live there. Whether they were racing or not, they wanted to know how I could prepare to race in such hot, humid conditions when I was coming from a still-cold Boulder. The same questions were asked in Wanaka, New Zealand, last year when I came straight from snowy Boulder and posted the fastest run split of the day, despite a high temperature around 90 degrees.

A couple other conversations come to mind, but they were not about me. First; a conversation that I’ve had with Marilyn McDonald, who won Ironman Malaysia in 2004 while training through a Calgary winter. The second was a conversation I had with Greg Bennett when I asked him about sweeping the Lifetime series in 2007 while training exclusively in Boulder. All of his training was done in a temperate, dry climate, but all of those races, less LA, were done in warm and humid climates.

Greg told me that the key to racing well in the heat is getting yourself as fit as possible. He did not mention anything about getting to the race venues early or doing lots of heat training or anything like that. When I lived and trained in Texas, I certainly was “used to” the heat, but there is no way I was training optimally when it was 95 degrees outside. My point is: living in a cooler place allows for faster training and faster training leads to be better fitness. Period.

Okay, but clearly racing in the heat should involve training in it, right? We need to be ready for race day conditions.

Marilyn addressed this issue pretty nicely when I talked to her about Malaysia some time ago. She told me about doing indoor trainer rides without a fan and doing some treadmill runs with some extra clothes on. However, none of these warm sessions were extensive or overly stressful (high intensity) and they were not done during her longest sessions of the week. Do some warm training, but don’t make it the main focus of your training. In my own training, I find that doing some short, moderate-paced treadmill runs without a fan keeps me comfortable with being warm.

Regardless of how fit you get or how acclimatized you are to the heat, I think there are a few key points that have helped me execute good runs/races in warm climates.

  1. Call it “warm,” not “hot.” This might seem trivial, but I try to never use the word “hot.” It seems to convey a predetermined level of discomfort. Being “warm” usually has a positive ring to it.
  2. Logistics become more paramount than ever. You cannot skimp on hydration in a warm race and you cannot play catch up. Long distance triathlons are reliant on a good nutrition plan to begin with, but they are even more important in warm races that require you to stay on top of hydration. I always slow down more than usual during aid stations to take in extra fluids during warm races. If I get too caught up in the racing and forget to look after myself, I fall victim to the heat just like many others.
  3. Be careful with pacing errors. It’s a lot easier to handle some hard efforts on cool days, but the heat makes the recovery from each effort much more prolonged. It also makes nutrition intake more difficult which leads to similar problems to my previous point. You must be very strategic with your matches on the warm days.
  4. Keep moving. If it’s a warm day, I almost always make up the most ground late in the day. It does not come from running faster, it simply comes from continuing to run. Carnage can be your best friend if you just stay in the game.

Happy racing this summer!