Ah, running through the Colorado mountains. The breathtaking views, the rolling hills (or “steep-peaks-that-just-tried-to-kill-me), and the crisp, fresh air (or lack thereof) invigorates the soul. It’s no secret that Colorado has been dubbed one of the best training grounds for sports (along with Park City, Utah, Flagstaff, AZ, and all the other mountainous regions).
Why? Because of the lack of oxygen.
Training statistics have shown that training around or above an altitude of 5,000 feet has been linked to increased production of the hormone erythropoietin (EPO), which in prompts the body to create more red blood cells ASAP. This happens because you are, quite frankly, hyper-ventilating; more red blood cells equals more oxygen being transported to your suffering muscles at high altitudes.
I’m not going to lie; after leaving Colorado, I was bummed about losing the natural fitness booster of training at 5280 ft and higher (sorry, Texas). Regardless, I ended up in San Antonio for my first job, and faced off with a good ol’ run in the Texas heat. I tied my shoes, headed out the door, and expected to crush a 10 mile long run. I was at sea level after all.
Unfortunately, my Colorado roots acclimated my body to the “dry” heat…Yeah, humidity isn’t a thing in Colorado. The life lesson I learned during that fateful run was that 85 degrees in Colorado is NOT in any way shape or form equal to 85 degrees in San Antonio.
The differentiating factor? Humidity.
Needless to say, the run ended up kicking my butt. I felt like I was swimming. It wasn’t even “that” humid apparently (only about 30% ), but I had to call it quits at 6 miles because my heart, lungs, legs, skin, all felt like they were being boiled.
Flash forward a couple of days. After I recovered both emotionally and physically from that horrifying event, I started to look into the benefits of “heat training” and how it compared to altitude training. Here’s what I found:
Heat training has been viewed as the “poor man’s altitude,” as it can lead to the same physiological adaptions as altitude training, but tends to be more accessible to more EVERYletes without access to rolling hills and mountains. I can’t always fly to Colorado for some altitude training [*sniffles] BUT I can get in some good heat training as soon as I literally take a step outside in the San Antonio sun.
One of the major benefits of heat acclimation is an increase in blood plasma volume (without getting too science-ey, it enhances circulation). Improved circulation means more efficient delivery of oxygen to your muscles over an extended period of time (hellooooo, endurance). Additionally, the benefits of heat training can begin in just 5-7 days, whereas altitude training requires approximately 3-4 weeks to reap the full benefits. Similar to coming down to sea level after training at altitude, when you transition from a hot and humid environment to a cooler atmosphere, VO2 max of heat trained runners remained greater than that of the non-heat trained athletes (VO2 = the maximum amount of oxygen a person can utilize during intense exercise). Plus, after heat training, you get to enjoy the benefits for an additional 12-28 days (altitude training benefits last approximately 10-28 days once you come down from elevation).
During the process of heat acclimatization, your body also gets used to sweating. A lot. I mean, it looks like I just hopped out of the pool after every run I’ve been on in San Antonio. Gross.
The good part about sweating like a disgusting person is the fact that you gain an increased sweat sensitivity. While this may seem like a curse because you start to perspire from just walking up a flight of stairs, it is actually your body’s way of working more efficiently to cool you off. Your body also loses less salt after an extended period of time heat training, which preserves electrolytes and helps you stay hydrated for a longer duration. Not bad, eh?
However, lacing up your running shoes and working up a sweat doesn’t exactly qualify as “heat training”; there are specific requirements, just as in altitude training. A humidity rating greater than 40% with a temperature of approximately 90 degrees or higher is a good benchmark for optimal heat training conditions (yikes). First off, it can prove difficult to find an environment with that high of humidity and temp, but even a slightly cooler and lower humidity can yield some heat training benefits. That being said…
This doesn’t mean you should move your treadmill into a sauna room and bust out a long run. If you don’t let your body properly adjust to the strenuous demands of heat training, you could end up severely sick, dehydrated and injured. Like any training plan, go slowly and allow your body time to acclimate. As mentioned before, this acclimation period can last between 5-7 days, with 10 days being the ideal benefits threshold.
So, instead of cringing on going on those hot summer runs, give a hot, toasty run a try (again, make sure you EASE into it and are adequately HYDRATED!) If you’re running less than 3 miles in temperatures less than 85 degrees, and humidity less than 50 percent, you should be alright with not taking water along with you (but feel free to pack some if you’re new to running, heat training, or all of the above). For toastier and longer runs, consider wetting a hat or bandanna that you can wear while running and taking along a water bottle.
A big pool to jump into after the run is also highly encouraged with that disgusting person sweat you’re likely going to have.