I’m sick of reading all the stupid, lazy “How to beat the heat in your next race” articles written lately so I’ve decided to write my own. My problem with the mainstream ones is that they all to touch on the same, already-known bits of useless advice like “make sure to drink a sports drink with plenty of electrolytes” and “stay hydrated the day before.” They all say almost the same thing, and although what they tell you is true, they need to go into more depth to really do any good. Without an explanation of why something works, what’s the point? So here’s my shot at it. All of this is firsthand knowledge. Triathlete readers: some of this will only be useful to bike racers.
- Don’t be fat. I’m not trying to be funny or mean; the fact is that being lean is the single-most important thing you can do to race well in the heat. Fat is insulation. It hinders conductance of your muscles and blood by hiding them deep beneath fat instead of transporting body heat outwards to your skin where it can be cooled via convection by blood and conduction by tissue. When it comes to racing in the heat, the leaner you are the better. Adversely, being super lean in the cold can be a detriment.My legs aren’t always vascular, but when they are they look as gross as the backs of a 98-year-old’s hands.
- Train in the heat. Even two weeks out from race day you can make huge adaptations by submersing yourself in the heat. If you know your race is going to be really hot, don’t purposefully train when it’s cool at 7AM, unless you live in Tucson or somewhere stupidly hot. Training in the heat forces your body to store extra plasma. This increases your blood volume and lowers your hematocrit (without getting rid of those invaluable red blood cells of course) so your blood is less viscous and easier to pump. Training in the heat also increases capillary density so you can dissipate heat better through your skin. Capillaries are essentially tiny veins that carry blood, water, oxygen, and other stuff from to the tissue they surround. (If your race isn’t going to be super hot, purposely training at the hottest time of the day may not be necessary or even worth the risk, since you can’t produce the same power in the heat and training in hot temps can lead to overtraining).
- Don’t just train in the heat. Become one with it. This can only be done in the sauna. Sauna training, which I’ve written about before, is one of the most crucial things I do to prepare for a hot race. Like training in the heat, sauna training drastically increases capillary density and plasma storage. It’s super painful and draining though. 20-30 minutes in 180 degree heat, post ride with no water, is more than tough. It’s brutal. But worth it if you can stick it out for a week. For the full protocol on sauna training, scroll to the bottom.
- The days leading up to your race, begin drinking extra water. Liters of extra water, not cups. Along with that extra water, pound the sodium. Note how I didn’t say “electrolytes.” The only electrolyte you lose in significant amounts during workouts and races is sodium. You have plenty of potassium, calcium, magnesium, chloride, etc. stored in your body and they can easily be replenished with regular old food, assuming you eat fruit and vegetables somewhat regularly. When it comes to sports drinks, the only electrolyte you should care about is sodium. And you need a lot of it. Not 50 or 100 milligrams. Shoot for thousands of milligrams. Skratch Hyper and OSMO Pre Load each have over 1,500mg per serving. Leading up to a hot race, or when I’ve been training a lot in the heat, I take a serving or two a day of one of those. This helps your body hold onto extra plasma and saturates your tissues with water, which can be sweated out later when needed. If you’re too cheap for expensive magic bags of salt, Top Ramen works well. You can just drink the broth and chuck the noodles if you want. Be careful when just loading up on regular sodium though. Continue reading below.
- Skratch, OSMO, and Clif use sodium citrate, which is easier on your stomach that sodium chloride (table salt). Typically, you’ll find sodium chloride in low-quality, sugary sports drinks like Gatorade. Too much sodium chloride (or any type of sodium for that matter) will give you the shits. So don’t overdo it the morning or day before the race, since diarrhea and vomiting tend to cause dehydration. And if you can, stick to the stuff that works (OSMO, Skratch, Clif, and other hydration formulas that don’t just use sodium chloride. You can even just buy sodium citrate by the pound online. It’s not very expensive.
- During exercise, regular Skratch, OSMO, and Clif hydration mixes have 250-350mg of sodium per serving. One liter an hour for a hot race should be the bare minimum, and should be easy enough to do on the bike. That would be around 700mg per hour. For a four-hour race, that’s just shy of 3,000mg. Considering you can easily sweat out 1,000mg an hour during a cool race, you’re still going to be in a deficit for the next day so hit the sodium hard after the race if there are more stages to come.
- Before your hot race, don’t do a big warmup unless you’re racing a TT. Staying cool before the race is important, because every minute your body isn’t overheating is one more minute you’re competitive in the race. Once your core temperature goes above 102 degrees, you start losing massive amounts of power.
- Stay out of the sun before the race. Another duh. Line up somewhere close to the start in the shade. I see people chat in the parking lot directly in the sun all the time when it’s 90+ degrees out. It’s stupid. Don’t start the race already hot and in a deficit. Pound water and stay out of the sun, preferably somewhere with AC as long as you can.
- Use ice socks during and before the race. Put them down your back or chest during the race (obviously), and your groin before the race (not obviously). Putting ice or ice socks (a pantyhose filled with ice) down your groin hurts like a mother, but that region of your body has more blood flow per square inch than anywhere else on your body that you could reasonably put an ice sock. I use the word reasonably very loosely. Also, building yourself an ice vest out of duct tape and sheets of plastic ice pockets (the kind that look like a sheet of ice cubes) works well and is way cheaper than buying one. They keep you cool for about 30 minutes standing around at the start before on a hot day.
- Dunk your jersey in cold water before the race. Dunk your bibs and shoes/socks too for that matter.
- Assuming the team car or feed zone is readily accessible (Elite nationals not included), dump bottles on yourself, especially your legs, as often as you can. The plus side of going back for bottles during a hot race is that you’re probably going to be the best hydrated guy on the team.
- Shave your entire body and buzz your head. It works. Even small arm hairs trap heat. You’ll feel the difference and you’ll thank me. Plus you’ll look better. Shaving your armpits and groin makes a difference, though it’s not comfortable by any means. I just shaved our dog Maybellene so she could be more competitive at the dog park this summer. Is my dog more committed than you? Probably.
- Unzip your damn jersey. Seriously, I don’t understand why people don’t do this and then later complain about cramping out of the lead group. That extra breeze could have been the ticket. Unzip your jersey all the way, and if you don’t have to carry bottles for anyone, tuck the ends of it behind your back bib straps before the start so your jersey isn’t flapping annoyingly against your sides for hours on end. It should look something like this:
13 days before your event, begin the dry sauna training, which is pretty miserable after riding for five hours or however long your workout was. Sit in the sauna for 20-30 minutes right after each ride for 7 days in a row. Go as soon as you can after your ride. I just park my bike at the rec center, grab a towel on the way in, shower off, and I’m in the sauna within five minutes of finishing my workout. Don’t rehydrate before going in though. Counterintuitive? Yes. Only consume enough liquid to get your recovery drink down.
Sit high up in the sauna (which should be between 170-180 degrees) for as long as you can, only coming down to the lower benches if and when you have to. It’s pure torture to make it a full half our at 180 degrees when your body is already depleted of liquid and energy after a hard workout. Go as long as you can. You might only last 15 minutes the first time.
When you get out of the sauna, don’t take a cold shower. Take a warm one. More importantly, don’t consume huge amounts of water at once when you get out. Don’t chug the water. Slowly sip to rehydrate for the next 3-4 hours so the heat stress you just put yourself through doesn’t go to waste. You want your body to suffer and adapt to the suffering, just like in training. This is crucial and miserable as well. Remember, you only have to make it through a week of this. Make sure to take in a LOT of sodium during this week, and you’ll have to drink extra liquid throughout the day too.
Stop five days before your event to let your hydration levels bounce back and your body super-compensate with extra plasma stores, more red blood cells (in theory), and increased capillary density. I recommend doing a practice run of this protocol during training a few months before your target race, just to make sure your body can handle it, similar to how you shouldn’t use new equipment for the first time on race day.