It’s hot here. Windy too.
I’m at the Tour of the Gila and a recurrent theme thus far is how hot, dry, and windy it is. Everyone is finishing with loads of salt on their faces and their clothing. There have been many heat casualties so far and it’s supposed to get hotter as the week goes on. I am hearing the familiar story about how they were seeing extraordinarily high HR (cardiac drift) and low power at the end of the race, and I’m looking at them at the finish and they have big goose bumps, and they are cramping and chilling … classic symptoms of heat distress.
Even if they trained perfectly and arrived to race in perfect form, they would have failed to achieve their best performance due to heat-related issues.
Temperature regulation is a primary function of the body, and when it’s too hot or too cold, the body must respond. When it’s hot like it is in southern New Mexico and the body starts to overheat, the body will automatically begin to down regulate output to control heat production. Our bodies produce heat and mechanical energy from chemical energy, which is why the harder we work, the hotter we get. There is a limited range of temperature that our body prefers to work in, and it has autonomic mechanisms to cool itself, like sweating and breathing.
When our core temperature exceeds the optimal point, our performance will begin to decline. And when the core temperature exceeds a certain limit, performance declines a lot, to the point of death if you push it way too far. Chilling, goose bumps, loss of power, cardiac drift … if these things are happening in any combination you’re likely not managing the heat as well as you could be, and your performance is suffering.
We lose a lot of heat through our breathing. Just as dogs pant as their primary heat scrubber, humans lose heat through breathing too. But mostly, we sweat. Did you know that humans are the most prolific sweaters of any animal species for their size, and there aren’t really that many species that actually sweat? Sweating has contributed to the human’s ability to overcome the larger and stronger competitive animal species. Because we sweat, we can run longer without overheating than the poor creatures we’re chasing for food. And so here we sit, on top of the food chain.
My late great bird dog Bob used to run with me, and she’d start out real fast, and as she heated up she’d slow down until finally she’d just plop down in the shade and pant for awhile … and if she could find a stream or cool watering hole she’d drink and soak in its coolness for a bit, and then sprint away refreshed. There is a wise lesson hidden in Bob’s process. See, Bob only had one speed and that was full-tilt. She would go out crazy fast and as her temp escalated, her speed declined until she was barely trotting along. A “dog day” is defined as a day so hot that even Bob the dog would be forced to take a break from chasing critters, and the heat would force her to lay down and pant in the shade.
So what can we learn from Bob? We wouldn’t choose to lie down and pant during a race, so if we want to maintain peak output, we need to do our best to keep our temperature within the optimal range. On “dog days” like those in Silver City during the Tour of the Gila, when the temps are in the 80s and it’s bone-dry, and there are many big climbs where there’s a lot of heat being generated but speeds are low and thus not much wind to cool hot bodies, it is inevitable that the body’s heat-scrubbing mechanisms of sweating and panting are going to be strained up to and past the limits.
So we need to proactively manage the heat to make up for the difference in what our natural mechanisms are able to handle.
It is simply a matter of actively cooling our bodies. First, we have to hydrate to replace water that we sweat and breathe out so we can continue to sweat and cool. We also need to hydrate so we don’t get dehydrated and cramp. Knowing your sweat rate and meeting the demand is key, but it is not enough. We should plan to help our body out with the sweating process by augmenting the amount of water that is on our skin and clothing during a race.
Here at the Gila, it is so hot and dry that even if you completely immersed in water before the race, you ‘d be completely dry in a few minutes. The evaporative cooling is very effective, but you’re going to go through a lot of water. Plan ahead, drink a lot of water, and wear a lot of it too. Of course, it is nice if it’s real cool water also, so that it removes heat from your body by conduction as well.
If you’re using a drink mix on hot days, it’s nice that it’s cool when it’s handed up so it refreshes and sucks heat away as it is going down. Hot mix on hot days can be downright demoralizing and can add to the problem. Do I need to tell you that you shouldn’t ever pour mix over your head under any circumstance?
It’s a good idea to avoid caffeine on hot days as it will just add to the metabolic fire and your temperature during the race.
Be very opportunistic with the cooling process. If there are neutral feeds, take a bottle or two of cold mix from your feeder, and then one of cold water from neutral support, to drink and wear. Know the distances between feeds and plan accordingly. If you need a musette to acquire enough bidons to get you through the race, it’s worth the trouble. If you wait until you’re thirsty to drink, you’re late … if you wait until you’re hot to cool off, you’re screwed.
Get cold fluids in you and on you proactively. Assess the conditions and be prepared when temps are high. Don’t be a casualty. If managed correctly, the heat can be an ally in putting more stress on the competition and bettering your chances of success.
Editor’s note: Rick Crawford is Director of Coaching and COO of Colorado Premier Training. He is also the head coach for the Fort Lewis College cycling team in Durango, Colorado.