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The heat is on


Andy Lane,  Professor in Sport Psychology shares his top tips on how to exercise safely in hot weather.

With better weather, sunshine and warmer days, questions I get frequently asked are ‘how should I exercise in the heat?’, ‘Is it safe?’ and what should I do to achieve my fitness goals?

Firstly, moving in the heat is more stressful than moving in the cool. Heart rate and perceived exertion for the same intensity of exercise will be higher. If we go for a 10-mile run in the heat, it feels harder to achieve than in the cool. If we run close to our personal best speed, we can do it in the cool but it’s always a challenge in the sun. Very simply, exercising in the heat is a stressor.

Think of the upcoming men’s soccer World Cup I Qatar, managing the heat is a major challenge for players, managers, officials and spectators. Overheating can lead to heat collapse and in extreme circumstances – death. So, to answer the first question, I ask you to focus on the relative perceived exertion. How hard does the exercise feel from feeling easy to extremely hard? From being able to breathe and talk to gasping for breath. When it’s hot, you can regulate how hard you run or exercise by using perceived exertion. You can say to yourself, “my sessions feel moderately hard, and so when this session (in the heat) is moderately hard, then I will stay at this intensity or slow down.” I argue that, until you have learned to cope with the heat, use the intensity as a guide to how hard to go, being mindful that it could feel very challenging. Whether its hot or cold, learning to use perceived exertion to decide how hard to go should be a good thing – you can have an easy session in the heat or cold - exercise does not have to be hard, grinding and tiresome.

Related to this, are the questions “should I drink more liquid?” and “what should I wear?” These are strategies to minimise the risk of overheating. Drinking in the heat acts as a way of cooling, but the downside of that is that it is possible to overhydrate, which can be dangerous. Drinking will help cool, and when its warmer, drinking more is generally a good idea as the body will be hotter than normal and therefore, running a risk of being poorly hydrated.

As for clothes, avoiding clothes that hold water is a good idea, and modern sports clothes generally allow the body to breathe. I would recommend not exercising in your old cotton t-shirt and would be mindful of exercising in the sun and which also poses the risk of sunburn. Think of a runner in the Marathon DesSable, then the strategy to prevent overheating is the relative intensity of the exercise – go easier being the message.

However, some people love exercising in the heat and see it as a way to test their mental ‘toughness.’ Indeed, the heat is a stressor and so if you want to test the extent to which you can perform under pressure, then doing hard sessions is a good way to do it. If you do decide to do this, mental preparation of how to interpret the symptoms of fatigue and keep going is needed. Re-appraising feedback that is trying to tell you to slow down as just information that you are working hard and therefore, that’s good and you wish to continue. So, you can use the heat to develop your mindset to cope with tough challenges and as such develop your mental toughness. But a word of warning, on a sudden hot day, the risk of collapsing via poor heat regulation is much higher and so some try lower intensity exercise to start with and don’t over it – know your limits.

For the first session in the heat, my suggestion is to take it gently, enjoy the sunshine, and do a session that allows you to adapt to the weather. A gentle run, with nice surroundings and some shade to stretch and cool down.

I guess there’s a reason why they say summer bodies are made in the winter!

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