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Racing in the Heat

  • June 1 at 4:15 PM
By Rafal Medak

This year the Ironman 70.3 (Sunshine Coast, Australia) and Ironman World Championships will be in hot locations.
A number of athletes train very hard through the winter eagerly waiting for warmer days to come. In triathlon, there are no shortage of exotic locations for races with sunny weather – Asia, the Caribbean, Europe, South America, or for those looking for a Southern hemisphere adventure in New Zealand, Australia, or South Africa.
Racing in these locations can result in great fun or great pain depending on how you’ve prepared for the conditions. As unless you’re one of few lucky people who the heat doesn’t affect, or you already live in a hot climate so acclimatisation is not an issue, then racing in hot and humid places will negatively affect your performance. I know only few people who are genetically designed in a way that heat is not a problem – like my wife Alicja – for her the hotter conditions the better. Though for most of us though a race specific preparation is a must!
I will start with a few obvious statements about things to consider when preparing for heat:
– The longer the event the more impact the conditions will have on your body;
– The hotter the weather the more will you be affected;
– The more humid the worse you will be affected;
– The bigger/more muscular athlete you are the more likely you will be affected;
– The more you sweat the more likely you may get into trouble;
The list is probably longer, but these are the things that most age groupers would find helpful when thinking about their next race in warmer conditions.
Everyone seems to have their own war stories from their ‘hottest’ race. I’ll admit I have come up against such conditions quite a few times where the conditions got the better of many competitors! Ironman China – the hottest Ironman ever with temperatures reaching 45-46C a special one, Ironman 70.3 Phuket, Ironman South Africa, and of course Kona is always tough.
Like most, I learned the hard way how to deal with such conditions and I will share with you few tips to help you prepare for such races in 2016:
Be fit – needless to say but heat and humid conditions expose much more than cold races any gaps in your preparation.
Acclimatise as much as you can at home. I have written blogs about training on a turbo trainer and a treadmill. As much as number of people hate them, they can help with preparing your body to racing in warm conditions. Doing a few runs on a treadmill wearing a long sleeve top or turning up the heating a bit before turbo sessions is not as ridiculous as it looks. Training in 30C when you are to race in 30C is a common sense approach to me.
From time to time go to sauna – start with 10min and build to 2x15min, alternate hot and wet saunas but be mindful that sauna dehydrates you so drink plenty and treat sauna as a training session – it may be quite tiring!
Know your nutrition – heat amplifies tastes, especially if the nutrition you are taking during the race is warm and in 70.3 or IM races it often is. It means you need to train with the nutrition you are going to consume so that your body is familiar with it and does not reject it during the race.
Get exposure to the sun – even if you become comfortable with the heat and humidity it is very helpful (if possible of course) to go for a training camp for a week or even better an extended week (like 10 days Friday to Monday). It really helps to get over the burning sensation on your skin that you cannot get used to unless you train in the sun. If you are training for an Ironman or a Half 9-10 days is enough to do 2 long rides, 2 long runs, and one longer brick done, all outside, all in the sun.
Learn to read your body. The gadgets help but you need to understand during the race what your body is telling you and how you need to respond to it. You can only learn it training from time to time without gadgets.
Have a sound race strategy and stick to it! If you know how fast you can ride for 4 hours or run for 2:30 don’t think that you can ride faster over 180k or run a marathon at the same pace. Even if you feel great be sensible, even on a more conservative on the side of sensible. Being too optimistic usually finishes with a marathon time being very close or even longer than one’s bike spit and none of us really want that.
A specific preparation for hot races works and the experience of such a race is so much more enjoyable.


This time it will be more ‘personal’ and so I will start with a disclaimer! The views and ideas expressed in this blog are mine and mine alone. I’m not sponsored and don’t have any association with companies whose products I’m using during races.
After published my first blog on racing in the heat I have received few messages asking specific questions. It is very difficult to help a person without understanding how their body works or how they will react to different potential approaches to solving their individual problems – but there were few very similar questions and I decided to share with you my opinions.
I will start with reminding what happens with an athlete’s body when he/she races in higher temperatures than they are used to It is a very simplistic explanation, you can find more detail explanations in different articles or scientific publications:
  • When we race in hot conditions our body tries to keep the core temperature down, protecting itself from overheating.
  • More blood is directed towards the skin, we sweat and sweating helps with the cooling process.
  • The blood volume gradually reduces if we don’t replenish lost fluids, the same happens with salts in our body, they are washed out with the sweat.
  • In order to keep the same intensity the heart needs to pump blood at a higher rate (there is less blood available to be directed working muscles) so our HR goes up. We also use more glycogen as fuel (and it runs out quickly).
  • There is less blood around our intestines and as a result we are not able to digest food/absorb fluids at the same rate. As a result we may end up dehydrated or completely powerless with a stomach full of fluids/food that leads to less pleasant consequences. (Needless to say I have experienced it few time before).
What happens at this stage most of us would know: we significantly slow down, or even are forced to walk and it is not uncommon that we need to ‘reset’ our stomach.
Not a nice picture? Indeed not, I hope we have established now that the key to a good race in the heat is to keep the body temperature down and staying hydrated which brings me to my answers to few questions from the readers:
I noticed you were not wearing an aero helmet in Ironman South Africa, why?
I tend to overheat when I’m wearing an aero helmet in hot races, I start sweating more, the sweat flows into my eyes… I feel hot, you get the picture. I have tried a few options and noticed a big difference in how I feel on the bike and then on the run when I wear a semi-aero helmet or even a standard helmet in hot races. I had by fastest runs when I was not wearing aero helmets.
You had a good bike split, how did you pace yourself?
I race by feel on the bike most of the time but in hot races I monitor regularly my HR, both on the bike and on the run. I have a definitive cap I’m not going to cross whatever happens so I need to be very disciplined. You cross the line once or twice, you may gain a minute or two but it will most likely bite you towards the end of the bike or on the run. Remember – higher HR means you are either overheating, getting dehydrated, working too hard for your ability and fitness level or a combination of all.
It was a hot race but you were wearing an elbow length sleeved top on the bike and on the run?
Yes, but it is not so much for aero advantage on the bike – I spray cold water on the top and when it is wet it feels cooler, it also protects from the sun burn. On the run I was wearing a different top – custom made from cold black fabric. Apparently it helps to keep the body temperature down, I cannot say if it does but if you believe it helps it do the trick! Again long sleeve more for sun protection and to avoid chafing under arms – I hate it!

Finally, on the picture of Part one I’m wearing a Camelbak – did you really wear it on the race day?
Yes, this is a picture from the race. There is a bit of a story associated with this one – Head Coach Brett (Sutton) was telling me stories about his athletes in the past racing with backpacks and suggesting I should use one as I sweat a lot and slow down after half way in an Ironman, but I have to admit I was a bit sceptical. Only slowest Age Groupers wear Camelbaks, right?
My view completely changed when I saw a guy running very well in IM Lanzarote last year wearing one. I ‘met’ him again in Kona charging like a race horse wearing his small backpack coming out of Energy Lab ahead of other amateurs and me struggling again with the heat and dehydration. Then I saw him at the Awards – the fastest Age Grouper last year in Kona, Malte Bruns from Germany! Then I decided to try it myself. I have been training with the Camelback for few months and it was completely natural to me to use it on the race day. Since I sweat a lot I need to drink regularly my own drink with extra electrolytes as I had issues using different products in the past. It allowed me to carry all my nutrition with me and drink what I’m used to and when I wanted.
Has running with the Camelback not slowed you down?
Obviously not, it was one of my fastest IM runs and by far the fastest in a hot race. My issues in the past were primarily caused but gastro problems and pacing. Actually starting with a full Camelbak helps with both, it slows you down a bit when you still feel fresh in first kilometres of the run.
I hope this blog help few of you to have better memory from hot races and allow you to cross the finish line a bit faster if you manage to avoid few common mistakes.