Exercising in the Summer Heat and How to Stay Safe

Tempted to head for the comfort of an air-conditioned studio when the summer heat hits? You may want to re-think your training plans.  Working out in the summer heat leads to quick improvements in fitness. This process, known scientifically as heat adaptation, can be applied to any workout format.  Turn up the intensity of your summer runs and bike rides or throw in hot yoga and strength training to maximize the benefits of soaring temperatures this summer.  Here’s what you stand to gain when you add heat to your summer workouts…and what you need to know to do so safely.


The Benefits of Exercising in the Summer Heat:


Exercising in the Heat Improves Your Ability to Cool Yourself.

Exercising in hot conditions causes increased blood flow to your skin to cool your body down.  Over time, you will adapt, becoming more responsive to the demands of workouts and competitive events through earlier sweating and increased circulation. This gives you an edge in competition and simply accomplishing more in your daily workouts.  It can also make you more comfortable when you just want to get outside during the hotter months of the year.


Exercising in the Heat Provides Benefits that Exceed Altitude Training!

Elite athletes have demonstrated the benefits of altitude training. What you may not know is training in the heat actually produces greater improvements in fitness than altitude training.  A 2010 study demonstrated that the physiological adaptations from heat acclimation include reduced oxygen uptake at a given power output, muscle glycogen sparing, reduced blood lactate at a given power output, increased skeletal muscle force generation, plasma volume expansion, improved myocardial efficiency, and increased ventricular compliance. These outcomes rival those of altitude training approaches and lead to improved performance across a range of temperatures.


Heat Adaptation Produces Quick Improvements in Fitness.

Exercising in the heat increases the stress load of your training. When your body responds by increasing circulation and sweating, you become more efficient at working out across a range of temperatures and conditions.  This means that you’re more likely to PR your next race or lifting session regardless of temperature and condition.  You also experience these benefits quickly.  As little as five sessions of high-temperature exercise are sufficient to lead to improvements in heart rate and sweat rate.


Exercising in the Heat Increases your Lactate Threshold.

While increases in Vo2 max and lactate threshold take longer to develop, adaptations that occur in the heart as a result of training in the heat, increase your cardiovascular capacity and your ability to do intense work for longer periods of time.  It makes sense to take advantage of training in summer’s intense heat if you want to set personal performance records this fall.


Exercising in the Heat Increases your Psychological Tolerance for Tough Workouts.

Training and competing require getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. Exercising in the heat forces your brain and body to work harder while you complete your workout.  Eventually that ability to work at a threshold that is “comfortably uncomfortable” gives you the ability to race and perform at your lactate threshold, which, coincidentally, improves through heat training.


How to Stay Safe while Exercising in the Heat:


Prepare for Working out in the Heat.

Adding heat increases the intensity of your workout. Be honest about your fitness level, cardiovascular or health conditions, and the potential impact of any medications you might be taking. Dress for your session with light, performance wear and fewer clothes to allow your body to sweat freely.  Pay extra attention to hydration by increasing your water for short workouts and adding in electrolyte drinks or supplements for longer workouts or multiple weekly training sessions.


Gradually Increase the Heat.

As you turn up the heat, do so gradually and be prepared to step the intensity of your workout back while your body adapts. You can do this by avoiding workouts in direct sunlight and timing your workouts for earlier hours in the day when conditions are slightly cooler.  Your performance will be reduced initially due to the increased training impact of working out in the heat.  Scheduling is also important.  Since heat training increases the intensity of your workouts, include it on intense training days while providing yourself recovery days in more moderate temperatures.


Understand and Respond to the Warning Signs of Too Much Heat.

Working out in the heat has the potential of elevating your body temperature to dangerous levels. Following the above steps of preparation and gradually increasing the intensity of your workouts will help you to avoid this. Before you start, you should be familiar with the symptoms of heat exhaustion and heat stroke. More importantly, avoid getting to that point by responding to early indicators of too much heat, including muscle cramps, nausea, and feeling light-headed.  If you experience any of these symptoms, take a break, increase your hydration, and head for cooler temps.


Summer’s soaring temperatures don’t need to end your outdoor workouts. Enjoy the benefits of exercising in the summer heat through safely stepping up your workouts.  To continue your heat training this fall,  try adding in sauna and hot tub sessions following your workouts.  This will let you gain the benefits of training in the heat year round.

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