Few would debate the importance of summer training for distance runners. In ordinary years, cross-country teams would be preparing for upcoming seasons, half and full marathoners would be targeting fall races, and track athletes would be laying the foundation for merciless schedules that start as early as December. Even with so much uncertainty right now, most runners recognize the opportunity before us to build fitness without interruptions by races or pressure to train through aches and pains.
Nor would many dispute that summertime features some of the toughest miles logged all year. Not only are most teams separated for a few months of lonely workouts, but extreme weather in certain places can exacerbate an already difficult task. There’s no getting around the fact that summer training is both necessary and hard; but there are ways to go about it safely and sustainably.
Elite runners from four of the hottest cities in the U.S. — Phoenix, Houston, Jacksonville, and Las Vegas — show us how it’s done.
Prepare for the Heat
With summers as cruel as Phoenix’s, 5K and 10K pro Jess Tonn knows that quality training is contingent upon thorough preparation. In addition to her early-to-bed, early-to-rise schedule, Tonn — who also works as a marketing consultant — plans her routes based on the sun’s position and that run’s hydration needs. “If it’s really a scorcher out (which is every day during May to late October in Phoenix),” she says, “I will do the same 3- or 4-mile loop for long runs so I can swing through and grab some cold water or Gatorade each loop.” Tonn also runs in the shade as much as possible, and starts her out-and-back morning runs going east so the rising sun is at her back for the second half.
Run with Friends
A lifetime of Texas summers has made Cali Werner (formerly Roper) a heat training expert. So it’s meaningful that the Licensed Master Social Worker and 2020 Olympic Marathon Trials participant’s top summer training tip is to run with friends. “It is so incredibly easy to get burnt out in the brutal Houston heat,” Werner says. “Training buddies can help you to take your mind off of the fatigue, thirst, and chafing,” while also passing the time and offering a unique bond forged through shared miles. Until the global pandemic subsides, groups should stay small, masked up, and conscious of people around them.
Know Your Hydration Needs
Jacksonville-based Kelsey Beckmann, a registered dietician who owns Meteor Nutrition and also ran in February’s Olympic Marathon Trials, doesn’t gamble when it comes to hydration. “Dehydrated runners with just a 2% fluid loss decrease in performance by at least 6–7%, and fluid loss of 3% and greater is considered unsafe,” she warns.
Prevent dehydration by calculating and meeting your daily hydration needs with Beckmann’s formula: Start with a baseline of drinking half your weight (in pounds) through fluids (in ounces). Then, calculate your hourly sweat rate by taking your pre-exercise weight minus your post exercise weight, plus fluid intake. Every pound lost during exercise equals 16 ounces.
Pre-run weight: 130 lbs.
Post-run weight: 128 lbs.
Water drank during 1-hour run: 8 oz.
Fluid loss due to sweat: 2 lbs. = 32 oz.
Total sweat loss: 32 oz. + 8 oz. = 40 oz. per hour
Baseline fluid requirements: 130 lbs/2 = 65 oz.
Daily hydration needs: 65 oz. + 40 oz. = 105 oz.
Drink All Day
Amount of fluids isn’t the only variable that matters; timing does too. Christina Vergara-Aleshire, a 2:34 marathoner and registered dietician from Las Vegas, emphasizes the importance of drinking all day long. A pre-run icy beverage can cool your core temperature, while scheduled sips during your run help to keep dehydration at bay.
“Every 15 minutes I drink even if I don’t feel like I need it,” she says. “The heat builds quickly and before you know it, your energy is completely gone.”
If you’re fortunate enough to have a supporter on a bike or in a car, you can also ask him or her to carry ice, which Vergara-Aleshire rubs on her neck, torso, wrists, and arms. Finally, start rehydrating as soon as you wrap up your run. She alternates between water and electrolytes throughout the day (even easy days), gets additional electrolytes through the Celtic sea salt she adds to her food, and eats plenty of water-rich fruits and vegetables.
Consume Extra Carbohydrates
It’s obvious that runners need to drink more in the high season for sweating, but less obvious is the reality that we also need extra carbohydrates. Beckmann explains, “During prolonged exercise, glycogen (carbohydrate storage) in our muscles and liver gets broken down as energy needed for muscle contraction. Hot and humid weather can expedite this process and deplete carbohydrates as an energy source sooner. This is due to an increase in core temperature and a shift in hormonal balance, causing us to spend our carbohydrate supply more readily.” Pay attention to both hunger and thirst, and feed your body the fuel it requires.
Rest Like a Champion
If there’s one area that runners overlook when it comes to summer training, Vergara-Aleshire suspects it’s sleep. Living in a desert climate that averages above 100 degrees for three months of the year, she has learned to pay extra attention to her rest and recognize that her sleep needs increase in the hottest months. “The heat really takes a lot out of you, and you can feel extra run down and always sleepy.”
Similarly, Werner encourages other runners to plug regular rest days into their summer schedules. “Yes, we can power through without a day off, but our body knows what is going down. Rest days keep you physically and mentally strong and will make the runs much more enjoyable.” They’ll also keep you out of the dreaded “hole” (summer’s version of the marathon wall) and help you make it to fall in a good mental and physical state.
While quick to adjust paces for altitude, hills, and headwinds, runners tend to be less lenient when it comes to extreme temperatures and humidity levels. We know such conditions make training harder, but most of us don’t have a good gasp on exactly how much. For that reason, Tonn suggests being flexible with your plan and adjusting it when needed. “Listening to the body, especially during hard workouts and long runs, is imperative,” she says.
In addition, Beckmann urges runners in hot climates to “go by effort and loosen expectations to prevent burnout and frustration.” For some, that may mean stashing their GPS watches in a drawer for a while, while for others, that may mean prioritizing heart rate over pace. Either way, know that faster conditions are ahead, and the training you’re doing now will pay off later.
Give Yourself Credit
Runners are notoriously hard on ourselves. Consider this your reminder to celebrate your dedication and grit all the time, but especially in seasons that are especially taxing. “As a mental health clinician and advocate,” Werner says, “I know it is equally important to invest in your mental health.” In addition to training the body, she encourages runners to work on their mental approach too. This includes reflecting on successes, acknowledging challenging conditions, and feeling proud of your efforts. It may be hard to see them now, but the gains you make in those areas now will translate to your next racing season, whenever that may be.