Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Another Dirty Little Secret

Two to three weeks before the San Juan Solstice 50 mile race I was beginning to get nervous.  The biggest reason for this was that I had not been able to spend much time this spring at elevations higher than 10,000 feet for any extended periods of time.  So I was scared about being at high altitude and running.  The second thing that concerned me was the heat.  Everyone knows how heat kicks my ass and this spring was no different.  Brooks and I ran a time trial, well, it was supposed to be a time trial on June 9th, a 20 mile jaunt that should have only taken a minimal amount of time. Well the opposite happened as it got hotter than hell and those 20 miles ended up taking about 2x as long as planned for me.  A really tough day.

So just as I embraced the Hoka's earlier in the spring to help in my running after suffering from beat up feet for so damned long, I decided to finally do something about the heat issue.  Inspired by local runner Simon Gutierrez whom I had read about doing a fair amount of heat training in his preparations for the Mount Washington Race in New Hampshire, and after a quick chat with him at a party I decided to give it a whirl.

If you want to read about the technical aspects of heat training, these were also very helpful and informative articles that helped to motivate me to take on this task.

Exercising in the Heat May Improve Athletic Performance in Cool and Hot Conditions, Study Suggests


Heat Acclimation for Runners

From the articles I gathered this much: (My Oversimplified 30,000 foot overview.)

1.  The body adapts to heat training very quickly with optimum results occurring after as short of a time as ten days.  Conversely, one can become "detrained" from heat training very quickly as well.
2.  How it works is that the body is overheated and because of that the blood is forced from deep tissue and organs to the surface of the skin to be cooled by the evaporation function of  sweat/perspiration.
3.  Because so much blood is essentially "out of circulation" the heart ends up more or less "dry-pumping" (my term) because there is not the usual volume of blood to be pushed out per heart contraction.  This dry-pumping then causes another biological adapation to the heat... Plasma volume expands.
4.  The plasma expansion then allows for more oxygen more or less to be carried through the blood stream.  In a sense... it is almost like blood doping but without needles, PEDs or anything.
5.  Two huge benefits are then derived from heat training.  The first, being able to function more efficiently at hotter temps and secondly, the ability to be somewhat better acclimated for higher altitude running.

That last sentence basically described a total win/win for me if it could actually work.  So on June 11th I began my heat training routine / experiment.  The one problem with heat training is that it does have such a short half-life so I had to basically sneak it in while at the same time tapering.  I still ran my regular daily training runs whatever they were supposed to be but I also would run a second Heat Training run everyday that lasted anywhere from 60-90 minutes, during the hottest part of the day at a medium to low intensity.  The heat training runs were not for running, the running was just the mechanism that I was using to build up heat.

How did it go?  Well, the first couple of days, or runs were pretty stinking tough.  For starters I felt like an idiot out there running in the middle of day in just about as many clothes as I would wear during the coldest winter runs.  Throw in the sunglasses and I could have been the Unabomber.   Lots of people stared, freaked out, offered me water etc... it was sort of entertaining.  To a point.  Everything felt really hard... it was crazy how hard it was to breathe even at slow speeds on easy terrain.

On the third day I noticed something.  It was subtle but it was there.  I was working during the day and I stopped to take my pulse mid afternoon.  It was down... low.  Several beats per minute slower than usual.  NICE!

The next big thing that I noticed was after five days of heat training.  I had ventured up to the Pikes Peak Summit to do a 3-2-1 run and Katie drove us up there.  When I got out of the car and started walking around I felt oddly comfortable.  I can't describe it any other way.  Usually at 14K I feel a little light headed at least... a little off but not that day.  100% comfortable.  And while my times running up high on the trail were not spectacular or fast, I was still very comfortable.  It was awesome!

In the second week, I did a run on Section 16, a regular run, not a heat training run and it was stupid hot out.  Upper 90's, and guess what?  Not only was I comfortable in the heat, I was almost chilled in the shady parts of the trail.  How crazy is that?

Now for the truly twisted part of this entire experiment... I actually got to the point that I was looking forward to my daily heat workouts.   Sure, some day's I would run them harder than I probably should have but it was still fun and easy.  I especially found it entertaining when after 50 minutes or so I would actually be feeling comfortable and cool while running.

It wasn't easy and I will give you that.  Each run I probably lost 5lbs of water weight and I am sure of this as I weighed myself before and after each run.  I also know that it took a lot out of me and I had to sleep a little extra to make up for it.  But damn it, the results were there.  The last heat training run that I did was three days before the San Juan Solstice then I completely laid up and rested.

I really have to say that I think it helped me in the race.  I knew it was hot, I could feel the heat but it did not crush me like times in the past.  I also felt the most at ease running across the Continental Divide, more so than ever before.  If I had to guess I would say that the heat training made my running pretty damned solid at all elevations under 11K, and still reasonable up around 13K. 

Of course now I think that I am completely detrained and given my druthers, I would rather stay and sleep at 10,000 feet or higher days/weeks before a big race at altitude. But in a pinch this did work for me, this time.  It was tough, it took time, and personally I think it was rather risky.  Not to mention all the fricken dirty laundry from soaking through everything everyday.  I will also go as far to say that I intend to implement another program like this before Leadville even....  I might start a few days earlier but I will run it up to the three days to go mark before the race and keep the efforts very low...  Unless I win the lotto before now and then and outright move to Leadville...

Typical Heat Training Ensemble.  Socks, two bottom layers, three top layers, wool hat, gloves and hoodie with the hood up and tied to hold in more heat.  I always wore my sunglasses for the perfect Unabomber effect.
So there you have it... how I sorta cheated the altitude at SJS and also got myself used to running in heat.   I will say that it was especially nice not wilting during the race when it got warm for a change.   All it took was some extra effort, creativity and faith that it would all pay off. 

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