Here in Seattle we wait months for consistently sunny days, and I for one, cannot get enough. But sun can be tricky. Over the years of training, racing and coaching others for ultras in the mountains, I’ve learned that preparing and acclimating to heat makes a big difference in one’s experience once the snow melts and the mountains open up.
According to various sources, performance decreases somewhere between 1.6 to three percent in marathon times for every 10 degrees the temp rises above 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Armed with an understanding of what our body does in the heat, however, will help you make the adjustments necessary for getting the most out of those long, sunny days.
As the temperature climbs, our body responds by diverting blood from our working muscles to our skin to dissipate heat, akin to coolant in the radiator of your car to keep it from overheating. That means there’s less blood going to the muscles for oxygen transport, and to the stomach for digesting.
So what to do? The best thing you can do is to increase your overall fitness. By-products of training include a change in your sweat rate and your sweat’s sodium concentration, changes in core resting temperature, and increases in overall blood volume—thereby giving you more plasma. Like training for altitude, your body starts adapting right away, but giving yourself 10 days to two weeks will allow your body the time it needs to respond.
In addition to training in the heat, the following will help you enjoy said training, as well as your race or mountain adventure.
Stay hydrated—it’s no joke. Because your body needs plasma to cool, make sure you’re drinking enough water to ensure your blood actually has plasma. A hydration pack like the Hoist will give you ample water for a day in the mountains and also some room to stash a jacket in case the weather turns sour (the Tantrum is perfect for this—it takes up no space and weighs next to nothing), and food to keep you going.
Wear a hat. We’re lucky here in the Pacific Northwest to have many shaded trails, but they often top out above tree line, which means they offer amazing views but also lots of sun exposure. Wearing a hat like the Swift Cap is like bringing shade along with you everywhere you go. It also gives you a vessel to cool yourself off with water from stream.
Take advantage of water on the trail. If you cross a creek, take a quick second to dunk your hat in the water and give yourself a little shower. While dodging water and skipping from rock to rock is fun, going right through the water will cool your feet a bit, which will really help your overall body temperature.
Perfect your sock and shoe situation. Hopefully you’ve figured out the right combination of socks and shoes so that even if they get wet (see above), they will drain and dry quickly to keep you comfortable.
Wear light-colored and moisture-transporting clothing. Having a light shirt to draw moisture away from your body will keep you loving your day in the mountains. Especially if you’re carrying a hydration pack (which hopefully you are), a shirt like the Echo Tee is perfect to keep you cool and dry.
Hop in that mountain lake. You’ve worked hard to get there, so take a few minutes to cool off before you head back down to civilization—your body and mind will thank you.
Wear sunscreen. Last but not least, make sure you have some sunscreen to protect your exposed skin. Sunburns don’t usually help you feel cooler.
Photos by Matt Hage.