Cool Running: surviving heat, hills and high altitude

How to prepare for the hottest, hilliest, highest races on earth


by Kieran Alger

Heat, humidity, hills and high altitude, these are the things normal marathon runners fear most. When choosing a race, it is standard practice to check the course profile, the weather and the altimeter and reject all but the flattest of smooth, sea-level tarmac runs.

Regardless of experience or training, conquering the marathon distance takes guts and determination. Above all, it requires a special ability (some might say stupidity) to suffer.

But runners’ capacity for pain also has limits, and given half a chance, avoiding unnecessary suffering is a pretty normal response. After all, who really wants to add kidney-shrivelling dehydration or leg-burning climbs to an already difficult endeavour? Well actually, I did. And I wasn’t alone.

Back in June, I lined up alongside 1,000 other runners for a unique marathon that puts all your running nightmares against a dream backdrop of a red-dirt Kenyan wildlife reserve.   

This unique marathon is the Safaricom Lewa Marathon [LINK: http://www.safaricom.co.ke/safaricommarathon/] and it’s a race like no other.

Set in the Lewa Wildlife Conserve in North eastern Kenya, temperatures during the race can soar well above 35 degrees Celsius. Humidity often reaches a stifling 65 per cent while the two-lap course also features grinding ascents at an air-thinning average altitude of 5,500 feet above sea level.

So how do you prepare for such an onslaught? I picked the brains of some of the UK’s top experts to find the best ways to survive the hills, high altitude and humidity.

Pre-Race: Preparing Mind and Body

1. Condition Yourself

By far the best way to prepare yourself is to train under the conditions in which you’ll race, but that’s easier said than done when you live in London, Leicester or Llandudno and you’re about to run in the searing heat of the African plains. 

“If I was working with an athlete I would advise them to spend 10-14 days getting accustomed to the heat and humidity by training in those conditions, starting lightly then building up.” Say Prof John Brewer, Professor of Sport Science at the University of Bedfordshire.

But that’s in an ideal world. If you can’t recreate heat and high altitude, simply targeting conditions you can influence will help, like taking your long training runs onto undulating trails, not tarmac.

2. Get An Artificial High

Thanks to technology, altitude is now easier to find in your own back yard. You no longer have to hit the mountains of Colorado to get a taste of thin air. Filtered air altitude chambers now mimic the oxygen-starved conditions you might find at 5,000 feet, helping you adapt, climatise or just build a bit of confidence by leaving the comfort of sea-level. So what’s the ideal altitude preparation?

“Two to three sessions per week for 4-6 weeks in the build up to your event should see substantial improvement going into the race.” Says Georgia Upjohn a trainer at the Altitude Centre in London [LINK: https://www.altitudecentre.com].

“We recommend high intensity interval training (HIIT) in the chamber, as this will improve your anaerobic threshold and allow you to run for longer without fatigue kicking in (lactate accumulating in the muscles).”

3. Develop a Drinking Habit (But Not Too Serious)

In the days before the race: “Keep sipping small amounts of fluid regularly, and check that your urine is light or straw coloured.” Says Professor Brewer. “But there is no need to overdo it as excess fluid will simply pass through the body.” 

4. Find a Solution

“On the day before, a carbohydrate-electrolyte solution will ensure that you have topped up your electrolyte stores and help with your stores of carbohydrates.” Adds Professor Brewer. “On the morning of the race, again a carb-electrolyte drink will help to top up stores.”

After the Gun: What to Do During the Race

5. Spot the When Your Salt Balance if Off

Staying hydrated is an essential part of your body’s cooling system but when humidity prevents sweat from evaporating from your skin, hydration levels can take a big hit. Without the evaporating effect you no longer get the chilling benefits of sweating, body temperature rises and you sweat more, sending your built-in air-conditioning into a vicious cycle. At the same time you also lose a lot of vital salts, making it harder for the body to absorb water and that leads to more dehydration.

So how do you spot when you’re in a spot of salty bother? “Muscle cramping is the main sign that your salt balance is out of whack,” says Professor Brewer.

6. Everything in Moderation

Dehydration can strike suddenly and in high temperatures it’s easy to get caught out. Sipping fluids regularly is the best prevention. “Drink a little and often, make use of the drink stations but be sensible, and don’t overdo it as this can lead to stomach discomfort.” Says Brewer.

7. Know When You’re Running On Empty

But how can you tell if you’re already reaching risky dehydration levels? “Heart rate will increase anyway as a result of exertion,” says Brewer. “But if you start to feel dizzy, sick or confused, then that is the time to ease off and replace fluid.”

8. Run on Pace and 'Feel'

“Relying on heart rate alone could prove tricky in the hot and humid conditions as your heart rate will be about five beats above your normal BPM.” Says Giuseppe Minetti of Fit.as [LINK: http://www.fit.as], official partners of the Human Race Endurance Series. “Use a heart rate wrist watch as a guide and set it to bleep at 95% of Vo2 max, so you can slow a bit if it goes off. Unless there's a hyena after you, then ignore bleeps.”

After: Ensure a Speedy Recovery

Your body will take a hammering over the course of the race so how do you ensure you’re back to your best in double quick time? Professor Brewer has one final word of advice. “Replace fluid, electrolyte and carbohydrate stores as quickly as possibly, and try to regain your pre-race weight.”

Kieran Alger ran the Safaricom Lewa Marathon in support of the Tusk Trust. You can follow his progress at www.manvmiles.com or on Twitter @KieranAlger 


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Discuss this story

Not dis-similar to The Big Five Marathon http://www.big-five-marathon.com which I ran as my first marathon this year, actually not as hard as you think. Basically it's going to take you x amount of time more than normal and if you run as a sensible pace and don't go out to hard then you will be fine. 

Yes you probably need to follow these recommendations if you are going for a record time but then you don't do these type of marathons for time but for the fun of completing them.


Posted: 20/08/2014 at 19:31

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