Masters in Heat

Ok not that kind of heat.  But something happened this week here in Northern California.   After a relatively cool and rainy winter and early spring, temperatures suddenly jumped and we found ourselves in the mid-90’s (around 35 degrees Celsius for our metric contingent).   I tend to be cold in general, but this week working out felt very different.  Instead of showing up in layers of clothes like I had been, I found myself sweating after a 5 minute warm up.  A powerlifting session left me dripping in sweat and I had to break in the middle of jumping rope to wipe the sweat that was dripping into my eyes.  Sweat is a good thing, since it’s our body’s way of cooling itself, but I hadn’t sweated so much in quite a while.

Growing up as an athlete, I learned the hard way what happens when we don’t take precautions while exercising in heat.  There were quite a few times where I’d finish a softball tournament with a booming headache and kicked myself for not being more careful about hydration throughout the day.  A few years’ ago after running the Chicago Marathon in record heat, and actually being pretty careful about hydration, I spent the next couple of days dizzy and nauseous with a mild case of heat exhaustion.   Someone actually died that year as a result of the effects of heat during the race and the organizers eventually ended up stopping the race and pulling runners off of the course because it became too warm.   I was thinking about this while sweating this week and became curious as to whether heat affects us differently as we age. 

Guess what? Add this to the list of things that we masters athletes need to consider. While older studies were inconclusive, mainly because they weren’t conducted using participants that were well trained, the most recent studies are quite conclusive. Heat affects us more as we age. As an example, a study* had men aged 20 – 70 complete 4, 15 minute sessions on a stationary bike in 95 degree heat with a relatively low level of humidity. They rested 15 minutes between each ride. Heat loss and whole-body sweat rates were measured during the work and rest periods to get an idea of how efficiently the men’s bodies were at dissipating, or dealing with the heat. Results showed that the youngest men (ages 20-31) were able to handle the heat the best, and the oldest group of men (ages 56-70) were affected most negatively. With each 15 minute period of work, the men in the older age groups sweated less and less and this was consistent regardless of body fat percentage or level of cardiovascular fitness (as measured by VO2 max).

So, what does this mean? Do we need to stop training unless we can be in air conditioned comfort? No. But we do need to be aware that training in hot and especially humid weather will affect us and we need to be prepared. There are some basic things that we must keep in mind to ensure our safety as the temperatures climb, but first of all let’s review some of the signs of dehydration or heat exhaustion:

  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Dark-colored urine
  • Fainting
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Muscle cramps
  • Pale skin
  • Rapid heart beat

If you feel like you’re heading in this direction (or are with anyone who may be), it is imperative to stop training immediately, get out of the heat into a cool, dry space, get some fluids, and remove any tight or restrictive clothing. If possible, take a cool bath or shower.

Our goal however, is to entirely avoid these symptoms.  How?

  1. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.  While your body can only absorb so much liquid at a time of course, studies have shown that hydrating more than your usual amount prior to training in warm temperatures will help to delay the onset of dehydration. Learning how much to drink before and during training sessions will take some experimentation. While there are scientific ways to try to determine the proposer amounts, everyone reacts to heat differently and you need to determine what is best for you. 
  2. Stay away from the cocktails. Drink the right things. Avoid caffeine and alcohol. They will contribute to dehydration rather than help. If you find it helps you, consider a sports drink with electrolytes during and/or after your session. Personally, I can’t tolerate anything sugary while training, so I stick with water until I’m done. You need to find what works best for you.
  3. Do all the healthy things. Recover well, sleep, warm up slowly, pace yourself, eat well. All the things that make us healthy overall will also help us to thrive in higher temperatures.
  4. Use protection. Wear sunscreen to protect your skin from the sun’s effects. A burn is not only uncomfortable, but it causes your skin’s temperature to rise which will not help.
  5. Be savage, not stupid. Slow down if necessary. As always, listen to your body and don’t ignore warning signs. If you begin to feel like you’re being affected by the heat, slow down, take a break or even call it a day.  

One last point of good news? Our bodies do eventually get used to the heat over time. So, take it slow and steady initially and if you train somewhere where you’re in for a long summer with high temperatures, your body will begin to learn how to function more effectively.

Stay savage!

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