Don't run the risk of overdoing it


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Paul Oppenheim

Heat wave! Yes, in recent weeks running has been a lot less enjoyable. Even a somewhat cooler (72 degrees) early morning that the radio said was "less humid" still found me dripping sweat after a five-miler. Even in my younger, faster days, summer was always an ordeal — something to suffer through.

We all know it's harder to run in the heat. Scientifically speaking, your body cools itself through perspiration, removing heat through evaporation. And in high humidity, there is less evaporation, so your internal thermostat can't cool as well. Your heart works harder trying to cool your body, less blood reaches the working muscles, and as you sweat you become more dehydrated as blood volume decreases. Bottom line: most people don't run as well in the summer.

But if you've hung in there through these hot weeks, you know that you've been able to adapt — at least to some extent. Soldiers serving in sweltering Iraq and Afghanistan are able to perform even in boots and armored vests. And in my army days in Southeast Asia we all got used to the heat and humidity. It wasn't comfortable, but we coped.

A good hot-weather running standard is "perceived effort." Don't worry about specific times, but rely more on how you feel. If it feels like you're working hard despite what your watch says, it's probably a decent indication of progress. Trying to keep to a specific time standard could risk heat-related problems. As for racing, I always felt that anything longer than 8K or 10K didn't make much sense in mid-summer. But those who are training for longer events in the fall have been putting in more mileage, so longer runs in the summer are certainly doable — with proper precautions.

The Chicago Distance Classic (now Rock & Roll Half) has been around for many years, initially a 20K, and more recently a half-marathon. I resisted for a long time, but finally figured that I was doing longer Saturday training runs anyhow, so just treat the race as a slower training run. On one particularly warm day I finished the race without too much trouble, and was chatting with Dr. Terry Nicola (he's the guy who treats many of the region's injured runners) at the medical tent. Suddenly, race volunteers dragged in a runner who was barely walking. He was semi-conscious, had to be supported, and his eyes weren't focusing. Dr. Nicola threw him in a small kiddy-type wading pool and began dumping bags of ice on the poor guy. Most of us would react quickly, but the guy just lay there, covered in ice cubes. Dr. Nicola later told me the runner's core temperature was at a near-fatal level, yet they managed to save him. It was a vivid image that has stayed with me for a long time.

Finally, those "technical" shirts given out at many races seem to have significant differences. Some are quite breathable in hot weather while others feel like you're wearing a plastic bag. Choose carefully.

And if you have run sensibly through the summer heat, you'll see positive race results once cooler weather arrives. It happens every year.

Paul Oppenheim is a member of the Oak Park Runners Club.

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