It was mid-July, and I was running a 100-mile ultramarathon with a heat index above 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
I was still relatively new to ultra running in the heat. With that said, I still had many hard lessons to learn.
Running with no shirt, without sunblock, and in the rain is how the story begins. One hundred miles of sunburn, extraordinary chafing, and heat exhaustion is how it ends. I reached a point in the race where no matter what I did, I couldn’t cool down.
This created worry, and the anxiety kept my mind in the future— a place where motivation can turn into suffering— instead of the present moment—a place where running this type of distance becomes possible.
When I stuck my head in the lake mid-race, the water felt like a hot tub. There was no shade or any realistic escape from the scorching sun.
It wasn’t the sun’s fought for my condition, it was mine. Somehow in some way, we manage to dig ourselves into a hole on race day. And somehow, in some way, there’s always a way to climb back out.
Long story short, I finished the race and learned many valuable lessons for ultra running in the heat—lessons I’ve used in 200-mile races and solutions I still use to this day.
In fact, I learned many tips for ultra running in the heat. Tips that will help keep you cool and stay moving through the long hot miles of a summer ultramarathon. Keep reading to learn more.
Please note: I am not a certified health physician and do not claim to be one. I’m only sharing the methods that worked for me. Remember, sometimes when you push the limits, the limits push back. So proceed with caution and never forget that safety comes first.
Summer Ultramarathon Tip #1: Start Slow Then Run Fast
Going out too fast can be costly. Remember, as an ultramarathon runner, we’ve reached our peak level of endurance through gradual progression. This allows each gain to become a new foundation to build from.
Heat training occurs in a similar way. Entering the heat from a cold house or car can be overwhelming to the body. I’ve found it to create a shocking response. So, take your time.
Start with a slow jog, and once your body acclimates to the temperature, increase the pace.
Summer Ultramarathon Tip #2: Train with Less, Race with More
I tend to purposely suffer more in training, so there’s less of it on race day. For example, when training, I run with no food or water as far as 31 miles (50k).
As a result, I feel much better both physically and mentally on race day. I say this because I’ve stepped away from a minimalist or abstinence type of running.
In effect, although the mileage is longer on race day, it’s more enjoyable.
Fortunately, I’ve become a fat-adapted runner where I can run much longer with far less fuel. I teach my entire program in my book, ‘The Fat Adapted Running Formula: A Step-By-Step Approach To Becoming A Fat Adapted Runner.‘
As I like to say: when every step of your run begins to feel like the first step of your run, you have mastered fat adapted running.
It’s a transformation experience, and my only regret is not discovering the process sooner.
Similarly, I prevent the comfort of a cool body while training for ultra running in the heat. For example, I run with less clothing during more humid times of the day. In this way, when race day comes, I take the many precautions discussed in this article, and instead of stressful, race day feels easy-going.
Never forget these words: On race day you run in a space between what’s comfortable and what you really want. Expect to be uncomfortable but also, expect the finish line to change your life!
Summer Ultramarathon Tip #3: Try Sauna Workouts
A few years ago, I ran a race across the State of Florida. It was 116 miles in length and stretched from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean. It was a long and enduring race, which, as we know, means training was also long and enduring.
Remember, what you put into running, is what you get out. Putting in an honest effort through training will prepare you for race day. In like manner, putting in a partial effort may get you in trouble.
The biggest challenge in training wasn’t the mileage. Instead, it was having to run in cold conditions and then racing in the heat. It was winter in the Northeast of the United States, and I would eventually race in The Sunshine State.
Simply put, my body was in for a drastic change.
Acclimating to warmer weather was a must. So I spent many days after work in the sauna at my local gym. Each week I’d add a little more time to the duration.
Because of time restraints, I brought dumbbells from the gym floor into the sauna and worked out. Dips, pushups, curls, shoulder raises, you name it.
With more time in the sauna, my body was well prepared for the upcoming climate change. In this way, it could spend less energy staying cool, and utilize more for my moving legs.
Summer Ultramarathon Tip #4: Cover A Few Key Areas
Personally, on race day, I recommend a sun hat with a drop cloth that protects your ears and neck. The ears and neck are two parts of the body that the sun can aggravate quickly, and at the same time, we often neglect.
Like anything in life, too much of a good thing can be bad. For instance, food can feel energizing. However, overeat and what happens? Your body requires extra energy to digest. If you’ve ever crashed after a holiday dinner, then you know what I’m talking about.
In a similar fashion, some sun is good. Yet, become sunburnt, and your body is working double-time to cool itself when energy could otherwise be utilized for running.
I’ve also found short sleeves to be more beneficial than tank tops when ultra running in the heat. They cover more skin without creating much more heat. There are many shirts available with longer short sleeves and UPF ratings to further protect from the sun.
Summer Ultramarathon Tip #5: Carry Extra Sunblock
On race day and training, it’s essential to pack extra sunblock (that is, if you use sunblock). I squeeze some into a bag and hold it in my pocket. You can also buy miniature bottles that fit inside your hydration pack or vest.
On race day, I find the spray sunscreen to work best so I don’t miss any spots.
One time I ran a 100k training run down the Florida coastline. I applied sunblock but didn’t realize I was missing the back of my arms—the result: extreme burn marks.
This was two years ago, and I still have the scars on my arms!
Summer Ultramarathon Tip #6: Soak in Ice Cold Water
Occasionally during very long training runs in the summer heat, I run into a store, walk into their frozen section, and stick my body into the freezer door! It’s a blast of cold air and brings your body temperature down quickly.
Likewise, on race day, I stick my hat into ice water. I then place the hat back on my head. Towels work well too. These can be wrapped around your neck.
WORD OF CAUTION: If you follow either the hat or towel tip… be careful! Water can easily run down your back and into your pants. Enough of it and it may cause premature chaffing.
One time I stuck my entire head into a cooler of ice water. However, this strategy backfired. Here’s what I wrote in an article for Ultra Running Magazine…
“At one point to cool down, I stuck my head into a cooler filled with ice water. It felt refreshing, but the instant I rose up, blood began pouring from my nose! Nosebleeds became a constant problem for the remainder of the night. I couldn’t touch my nose without causing it to bleed nor could I blow it. Even when gnats flew inside of it, they had to stay there as it was that or risk another enormous nosebleed.”
I’m not saying I won’t attempt this technique again. My body was going through an extraordinary amount of stress during my first 200-mile ultramarathon. I think my feet are still damaged from the extraordinarily painful blisters. However, I will likely try it again, but this time, take it slow.
Summer Ultramarathon Tip #7: Monitor Your Urine
Although I won’t get into the science of hydration and nutrition techniques during this article, I’d be remiss to not mention monitoring electrolytes. Remember, water is a natural diuretic. A runner with unbalanced electrolytes is a runner in trouble, especially when ultra running in the heat.
As a solution, I’ve always found electrolyte caps to work best. In the most simplest explanation, it’s a capsule filled with sodium and potassium.
How do I measure my electrolytes? Personally, I use the color of my urine. If it’s a light yellow, I’m in good shape. If it’s clear, I need more electrolytes. If it’s dark yellow, I need more fluids.
I know, it’s not an insanely accurate approach. Still, it’s been good enough over the past 100+ ultramarathon distances I’ve run thus far.
Summer Ultramarathon Tip #8: Spray Your Way Out Of Trouble
In my new book, Mindful Ultramarathon Running: Train To Run Longer, Stronger, and Faster With Less Effort, I write…
“Once the blisters were under control, it was smooth sailing to the finish…right? Far from it. The intense sun exposure caught up with me and my body began to overheat. I started slowing down again, wondering if I could continue any longer.
Suddenly, I was struck by a sudden wave of ultra-running inspiration. Out of nowhere, a film clip from an old Badwater documentary popped into my head. It was a clip of a runner’s crew who sprayed him down with water from a giant machine to keep cool. Although there wasn’t a random shed of landscaping equipment that just so happened to sit alongside the course, I did manage to get my hands on a small spray bottle. Who would have thought a spray bottle filled with cold water would have such a positive impact? I sprayed my face and mouth for the rest of the race to prevent myself from overheating.”
Summer Ultramarathon Tip #9: Know The Number One Goal
The whole entire point of reading this article is to be proactive. And that’s what’s required on ultramarathon race day. Adjusting to new temperatures, overdoing the sunblock, covering up on race day, working the shade, monitoring electrolytes, this is all to stay safe and prevent yourself from a DNF on race day.
It’s much easier to take the necessary actions to stay cool than trying to cool down when overheating on race day. Personally, my body has become so hot where I had to significantly reduce my pace to prevent blowing a gasket. If fast times are important to you, then being proactive is a must.
Summer Ultramarathon Tip #10: Embrace the Heat
I’ve been asked many times what I think about when I’m running or do I ever get bored. But here’s the secret…
It’s not about what I think about while running, it’s about recognizing the thought-thinker-observer connection. The resistance over the distance brings out the distinction between the three, and this enlightenment empowers my movement.
I love running ultra distances, it’s a beautiful struggle of a journey. However, I don’t necessarily focus on speed or endurance. Instead, for me, it’s about aligning with the heart-center.
Love is home. Outside my running shoes I’m a stranger, inside I belong. Therefore, I continue running not to perform, but because I’m home-sick.
If all roads lead back home, ultra running mileage has been a big part of that journey.
Running with less makes me feel more. Therefore, I embrace the heat.
I embrace it for the stress it produces and the detoxification it creates. I can’t help but focus on the benefits of ultra running in the heat.
Although ultra running in the heat requires more energy, I remind myself of this…
You can’t run out of energy if you are energy. Yet your alignment dictates how much you feel. Let go of self-limiting stories and limitations and your feet will forever move forward.
Along with distance and time, temperature is relative also.
Final Thought Bonus: Run Mindfully
Although these tips may seem minimal, remember, it’s not the few big boulders that take you down on race day, it’s the many small pebbles. It’s the little issues that grow into huge problems over time.
These small problems can be monitored if you take a mindful approach to ultra running in the heat.
The most powerful tool you have to run long distances is your mind, and when you master it, the boundaries of your endurance disintegrate.
Remember, your body doesn’t give up on race day, it’s your mind that has the final say!
So, if you are ready to begin a new practice. That is, a new mindful approach to running an ultramarathon, then give my new book a read. It’s called ‘Mindful Ultramarathon Running: Train To Run Longer, Stronger, and Faster With Less Effort‘.
Prepare to run away from the old you, and then, run back to the new you. That’s the true you, meeting yourself again for the very first time.
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