Heat Exhaustion & Running – Devastating Consequences

I have recently had the opportunity to experience first hand the detrimental effects of running (racing in my case or barely anyway) with the effects of heat exhaustion.

I was lucky enough to take part in the Xterra world running champs in Oahu, Hawaii recently and although the scenery at times was simply breath-taking, I certainly found it tough to appreciate this because of the stress my body was going through.

I’d come off of some recent races feeling strong, fast and fresh and ready to take on the front pack and although I realised that of course it was going to be hotter there than in my training yard of Whistler, BC in the mountains, I guess I hadn’t fathomed on just how much this change of climate would affect me.

I’d been training for the couple of weeks prior to the race in very wintry conditions, running up and down mountains in sometimes knee high snow. So it was fair to say that the change from freezing temps to what transpired to be heat in the 80’s and very high humidity was quite the ‘jump’ and my body was ill prepared for this.

The race took place a mere 48 hrs after arriving on Hawaii soil, which obviously didn’t give me much time to acclimatize. The effects were devastating though! Within 5 km of this 21km race I was literally cooking. My pulse was skyrocketing and my blood was boiling. I already knew here and then that this was NOT going to be my day. I admit I did think about pulling out at that point, but decided after a brief stop to try to collect myself, cool and see what the next few km’s would allow me.

I actually re-grouped and got it together a little, but I was suffering and there were definitely signs of something not being right. At every aid station from there I dumped a couple of cups of water over me and inhaled whatever electrolyte drink was on hand. This helped for a good few km’s, but hills were unnaturally killing me (one of my strengths normally) and around the 16km mark when I’d had to slow to negotiate some traffic I felt my heart literally trying to jump out of my chest and the beat very erratic. Admittedly at this point I was quite concerned and considered dropping yet again and wish I had.

I jogged and ran in the final few km’s and although my ego felt as bad as my body, somehow managed to throwdown a final sprint over the last few hundred meters. The poor girl trying to get my timing chip off me and then hang a medal around my neck unfortunately received some unfortunate abuse as I barked at her to leave me alone and let me through. I’d been feeling faint for a while and was concerned that now would be the time I actually did.

Fortunately after throwing my patient wife a glazed look after crossing the line, she realised all was not well and allowed me to keep moving and grabbed me water, electrolytes, etc. Everything was off and my body was not functioning properly, but after sitting for a while and down copious refreshments I started to come round.

I peeled off my bad choice of running shoes (it was mostly smooth running surfaces and not enough mud, roots, etc for my choice) and socks and found some of the worst blisters I’d ever had, but all at one time. A direct result of sweating so much and losing so much electrolytes.

A full recovery was made within a few days, but it was getting my body back in balance that took it’s time and slowed muscle recovery, etc.

On reflection, such a sudden and drastic change in heat and especially humidity was obviously the killer and if circumstances allow, I would certainly get out to this race climate a good few more days before. I’ve since read studies that all agree that acclimatizing and conditioning to this climate will usually take around 10-14 days as the blood plasma adapts. It is also found that running in heat above 70 degrees farenheit, your heart rate will typically increase around 10 beats per minute. Studies also show that high humidity will also increase your heart rate by around a further 10 beats per minute – Little wonder I was f#####!

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Understanding the need to taper and recover from races and training

As runners we’ve all heard about the need to taper or recover leading up to important races, but why do we hear so much about it?

Most of us will appreciate the need to ‘back off’ from our rigorous training at times or perhaps tak a day off from running altogether as our muscles and body just feel too fatigued to get out there and run some more, but why? You can often read that there is a benefit to running / training whilst on tired legs to mimic how you will feel in the latter stages of a race for example. This is often a form of raining that those preparing for an ultra marathon might do – say a 25/30 mile run on Saturday followed by another 15/20 on Sunday.

What many don’t fully appreciate is that it is while resting that our body repairs and heals itself. In other words, the adaptions that take place after a hard work out, such as a long run or speedwork, tempo runs, etc, these only take place while resting. When we are pushing ourselves to improve, be it to run longer or faster, we create many microscopic tears to our muscles. It is this damage that when healed and repaired, grows back stronger – allowing us to be stronger, faster or more adept at running further.

Now, if we continue to push ourselves hard every day, running or training on already damaged and fatigued muscles, it becomes very hard to train well. I wouldn’t encourage it, but anyone who’s tried to run hard and / or long every day will tell you that their training performance simply suffers as they struggle to maintain the quality. It is for these reasons, amongst others, that we need to back off and have ‘recovery days’, either cross training (perhaps biking or swimming for example) or possibly even have a day off after a hard session. Think how hard it is to complete your weekly long run in the build up to a marathon or half marathon if the day before you completed a multiple set of speed interval repeats. Your long run suffers, you may not complete it all as planned and such, you won’t get the benefits that you would have otherwise received.

So after weeks of building up to your race goal, doing all the ‘good’ things, such as hill repeats, tempo runs, speedwork, etc, your body will hopefully have made some pretty big adaptions, but chances are, is that there are still a lot of muscle tissue damage that needs to be fully repaired and glycogen stores replenished and topped up. To run at your optimum – often known as ‘peaking’, you’ll need to have all muscles rested, fully repaired and feeling fresh. This means reducing the volume of training you’ve been doing. Too often people will also reduce the number of quality sessions in this ‘tapering’ period, which will typically be somewhere between 2-3 weeks for a marathon and less for shorter distances.

The trouble with reducing the ‘quality’ sessions too much is that your body will begin to lose its leg turnover speed. So, you should reduce the number of speed repeats, or the length of the tempo runs, but keep some fast leg turnover work even into the last week – to a degree. However, as you reduce the mileage over the couple of weeks leading up to your big race, your legs should begin to feel ‘fresher’, even sprightly. Your energy levels should feel good as your start to burn off less glycogen and calories, fat, etc. This said, be mindful not to overeat and consider reducing your fat and calorific intake as your reduce your output. It is natural to put on a couple of pounds in the last week or so, but no point in undoing all that good work, eh? It’s hard dragging extra weight around a course!

Similarly, after your race, in particular a long distance event such as a half or full marathon. Your body will probably have run as hard and as longer as it ever has. No matter how you feel immediately after the race, you will have created some damage, hopefully only microscopic muscle tissue tears, but often bigger problems to tendons and cartilage. Running too much too soon after the race will greatly increase the risk of getting injured. Muscles will be fatigued and further stressing them, particularly in the first few days and week will often result in a breakdown. When fatigued muscles don’t work properly, the force and impact each stride has on your body will need to be soaked up, possibly by tendons or bone. Trust me, this IS how we get injured!

Ease back into running slowly. Nothing too long or too fast for a couple of weeks afterwards. Don’t get me wrong though. This period before and after our race where we’re reducing the amount of running we do is tough. For me it’s the worst and the hardest part of training for a race. I’m a runner, I want to run, but running and training smart will help you all in the long run. Something many of us all learn the hard way!

Sick? Injured? – Get flexible with your race goals

So all the hard work has been done. That race, be it a marathon or a half marathon that has had you training religiously for the last 4-5 months will be upon you in a matter of days. There’s just one snag – somehow you’ve managed to pick up a little niggling injury or a bad cold or sickness bug!

Some would say this is ‘sod’s law’, but actually it is all too common. The risks of pushing ourselves into training too hard and long, or perhaps more appropriately – not training wisely, is that we can push ourselves into an ‘overtraining’ scenario and our body gradually begins to breakdown. This is why it is so important to listen to your body. When you are fatigued it is difficult to go out a run a good quality hard training session, be it a tempo run or speed repeats, etc that we will actually benefit from. Just to be clear on this point – our body’s improve from overstressing ourselves and then recovering. It is in the ‘recovery’ stage that we actually improve and why more often that not, the day after a hard workout should be spent resting or perhaps with an easy ‘recovery’ run. If we don’t do this, there is only so much our already overworked and fatigued muscles and tendons, heart, etc can take before something has to give.

The other common problem is that too many runners actually get sick during their taper just before a race. This is usually because as the physical questions we ask of our bodies (ie; gradually less and less), our body may be tempted to think that is suddenly now taking a vacation and stop fighting as hard as it has become accustomed to. Place yourself in a room full of people with germs, colds, etc and your immune system is a little ran down, then there is potential to be more susceptible to get sick.

This doesn’t mean we have to avoid everyone of course. Just continue to rest up, eat healthily and well, try to avoid stressful situations as much as possible (stress can also have great negative effects on our body’s immune systems) and generally look after yourself. Some may choose to take some supplementary vitamins pills for example and this may well help, but eating well is just as important as all the nutrients you’ll need can be obtained naturally.

So race day is here and you now have a nasty cold. Should you still run?

This is very much a personal thing, but the general rule of thumb is if the affected cold area is above the neck, then it’s OK still. If, however, you have a cough and are having some respiratory issues, then you should definitely consider postponing the race and maybe considering a different upcoming race. The same goes for if you actually have flu and are feeling achy, etc. It can actually be very dangerous to place too much stress on your body if you are suffering this way and if you ask too much of yourself, it is possible to inflict far worse damage on yourself that can potentially take weeks and months to fully recover from.

Assuming you feel as if you should still run though, you need to be realistic. The chances of you hitting that PB you were aiming for are probably very slim and in this authors experience, the longer and harder the race (such as a marathon, which is already taxing enough on the body), the higher the chances you will begin to suffer more than usual, probably sooner and harder than usual as well. Therefore you should consider adjusting your target. Perhaps just aim to run round the course and try to enjoy it, forget about the time on this occasion. At the very least, allow yourself to back off from your original timing. You never know, you may actually feel better than you thought later in the race and be able to kick on a bit and you’ll also recover a lot quicker if you don’t tax your body quite so hard – Bear in mind that if racing with a sickness, your body will probably suffer a lot more stress, maybe causing you to sweat more than usual or even dehydrate a lot quicker amongst other concerns- so LISTEN TO YOUR BODY and be prepared to adapt!

Running Training and the Importance of Body Maintenance

Looks like it may well turn out to be a busy year for me after all. I still have concerns over the ‘fat pad’ impingement that is effecting me, although this has subdued sufficiently to allow me to train in earnest. I’m still scheduled to have an ultrasound scan in a few weeks time and possible guided cortisone shot if this is still deemed the best way to aid a quicker recovery and reduce the swollen ‘pad’ in question.

However, I am successfully logging the miles again and speedwork has been thrown down over the last few weeks. Fortunately the Zurich marathon is 3 months away and as long as there is no further breakdown from my body and the commitment to train in the cold, rain and ice where I live, then hopefully, I’ll be able to shoot with some confidence at my elusive sub 2 hr 40 marathon time.

So now it looks as if I may have finally been accepted into another of the ‘glamour’ races in New York and now the trick becomes careful planning of my schedules to not over race this year in between the two marathons (roughly six months apart), train smart and allow sufficient recovery, both during training and after each race.

Every good runners manual will recommend slowly increasing your mileage each week by no more than @ 10 percent. This is to ensure that we’re not suddenly placing increased stress on our bodies that it’s not ready to handle and breaks down, maybe a hamstring is pulled or your IT Band becomes aggravated or achilles tendon becomes inflamed amongst other complaints. All of which will slow you down, probably enforce a period of prolonged rest in the middle of your important training and leave you feeling very frustrated. Sure, you maybe feel good enough on your weekly long run to chuck in a couple of miles and may decide to keep running until you finally feel tired or sore. Yes, you may still feel great after this new long distance you’ve achieved. Trouble is, the potential damage of too great a training increase may not show itself until several days down the line when little ‘niggles’ begin to show themselves – often a cumulative effect.

It is also painfully important to get sufficient rest. The body improves physically by becoming more powerful and stronger and efficient not just from the actual training, but from the adaptions it takes from the training sessions. This means your body improves during the rest. Now, obviously, this is not the ‘green light’ to take days and days off from training to keep resting, but rest should be considered as part of your training.

You may be able to physically cope with a long run one day, perhaps a couple of other tempo run sessions and some speed and hill work each week. However, these are all considered hard sessions and depending on your running background (how many years you’ve been running, how many miles you’ve logged over time to build that endurance base – Consider many of the East Africans who often run several miles a day to and from school from a very young age!), your age and how fit you – these considerations are factors in how well you recover from these sessions and there will typically always be the need for two or three easier sessions per week or perhaps a 10 day training cycle. For most, a hard days training session such as a 20 miler or a long tempo run, which both take a toll on the body, will be sandwiched by easy running days before and after to allow recovery and be ready to train hard again.

There are of course some other great ways to assist the body and not ‘overtraining’, which can lead to injuries, becoming run down and ill, constantly tired and lethargic, etc. If you can, consider having a regular massage to relax the muscles and tissue and help flush out the toxins by speeding up the blood flow. Sleep is also very important. Once the mileage you log each week begins to increase, your body will demand that extra rest and you should aim to get a good eight hours shut eye whenever possible.

Other training methods can help just as much to maintain fitness, cardio-vascular capacity and lessen the tax on already tight and worked muscles. Consider cross training by biking or swimming, perhaps using an elliptical machine in the gym or even cross country ski if you’re in a wintry environment. These won’t substitute actually running, but for anyone with little niggling injuries or perhaps just need to take a few days off from training but still feel the need to keep up some body maintenance training, cross training should be considered.

We can also all benefit from some strength training. There will be great benefits to be had from working on your ‘core’ muscles to maintain good running form and posture. Consider one or two days a week of some light weight work and don’t merely focus on those legs.  If you’re aware of any body mechanical imbalances where you’ve been susceptible to injury, look for some advice on how to strengthen those area, focus on training those glutes and hips, etc.

Finally look to your diet. Just as important to any rest and training. A long or very hard session can lead to great body adaptions and therefore improvement. However, recovery can be greatly aided be replenishing lost nutrients within an all important window that lasts only around 30 minutes or so after you’ve finished your session. You should aim to take on a mix of both carbs and proteins (typically a suggested ratio of 4:1) during this window immediately after you finish training. Often a drink containing these ingredients will be easier to digest and will be absorbed into the body much quicker than solids, but both are important. This should then be followed by a more substantial meal, nothing excessive  in size, within the next 1-2 hours. You should also ensure that you are well hydrated at all times. Often after a long run of over an hour or more, you will become dehydrated to some degree and it is important to replenish as soon as possible and keep drinking throughout the day until your urine  becomes clear or at least only a pale yellow discolouration.

Overall it is important to eat healthily, get a good balance of foods, avoid too much bad fats (especially saturated fats) and if you are logging big miles each week, keep your carb diet to around 60% or so of your diet – try and keep to the ‘good’ carbs, those which are slow release such as nuts, pulses, beans, wholemeal grains, etc.

If, like me, you may well be attempting more than one long race per year ( a couple of marathons, possibly some half marathons and maybe even an ultramarathon), it’s also important to not jump straight back into training in the first few days straight after your last long race. Your muscles may actually feel good, but after having just ran a marathon, your tendons and even bones will be very susceptible to more damage as the muscles have just taken a beating and are grossly taxed, meaning something else has to take the strain. Gradually ease yourself back into some easy, slow, short running over the following week or so. The desire may be too much to handle in not running for a while, but consider some of the great names and athletes, such as Paula Radcliffe and Karen Goucher for example, who may take as much as a whole month off before resuming training again, depending on their schedules of course.

All in all, recovery is a very personal thing and is dependant on a multitude of factors, such as how well trained you are, how much you taxed yourself during the race ( a marathon will take much longer to recover from properly than say a 10k race), did you give it everything you had, did you ‘bonk (where your body has depleted its energy levels from it’s nutrient stores) and how quickly you get nutrients back into your body.

So, train hard, train smart and work for your goals.