Monday, 23 March 2009

Heat Acclimatisation for spring races

With the first hint of spring in the air it is time to give some thought to what impact warm weather could have on your spring race plans, especially if you are planning a late April or May marathon.

In recent years the London Marathon has been affected by unseasonably warm weather on a couple of occassions. Warm weather has several affects, most of which are performance reducing for endurance athletes. The bottom line is that warmer weather makes our body work harder to keep cool. That means pumping more blood to the skin rather than the muscles and losing more fluids and electrolytes as sweat which in turn reduces blood plasma volume and the hydration levels of the cells. So sticky blood and badly lubricated muscles. Imagine a car engine with sludge in the fuel tank and no oil left in the gearbox and you start to get the picture.

The good news is that there is plenty you can do to be prepared. The starting point is to know what weather to expect in your target race. A look at one of the weather websites such as Wunderground can show you historical data and seasonal norms. Something to be wary of though is 'average' temperatures. Far more important is the range of temperatures you can expect. For example in March 2008 London had a range of -2 to 14 degrees whereas Amman in Jordan had only a slightly higher average but a range of 0 to 32 degrees. Clearly if you got caught out with a 'hot' day in Amman it would have a much bigger impact on your performance than a 'hot' day in London !

So how can you acclimatise for warm weather during a european spring ? Well the extreme version would be that practised by a former british olympian who put a cycle machine in his bathroom, turned the heating up full blast, filled the bath with hot water for added humidity and then in full tracksuit proceeded to pedal to exhaustion. Its not something I would advocate though ! For some athletes a spring warm weather training camp is part of the answer. The Algarve, South Africa, Tenerife and Cyprus are all popular locations at this time of year. But if this isn't an option there are a few practical solutions at home.

Make the most of the warm days when they occur. Last weekend was warm and sunny and I went running in the early afternoon when the temperature was at its highest. If that doesn't fit with your schedule then doing some runs indoors on a treadmill can work, especially when the local gym is at its busiest (and warmest). Adding some extra clothing also does the job. Although contrary to popular opinion you don't need to be wrapped up like a Michelin man. A hat and gloves are enough to fool the body's thermostat and give you some heat acclimatisation.

And if you are concerned that you have left it too late the good news is that the body adapts to heat stress relatively quickly. Athletes going to race in hot conditions often report that 10 day acclimatisation period is enough. So some carefully planned easy training sessions in te gym/sun/with hat and gloves can give you just the boost you need and leave you well prepared in case of a warmer than average day at your big race. And a final thought is that recent research from the Australian Institute of Sport showed that heat training stimulated an increase in blood plasma volume which could result in improved performance in normal conditions.

Updated July 2011
Running Times article on heat

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Engadin Ski Marathon

A change is as good as a rest, or something like that. With the clock on this injury of mine now up to 10 weeks it was time for a change of scene and a visit to my summer training haunt of St Moritz in the middle of winter to take in the annual Ski Marathon. A 42km cross country ski race which takes in much of the route use by the 27km Engadiner Sommerlauf which I've used as part of my marathon build ups. Given that I can't ski and still have some aches and pains spectating was the most I was up for but what a sight.

There are 11,000 athletes starting in waves and the speed at the front is impressive. Under 1hour 40 for the leaders. There are two types of skiing. Classic and freestyle, which is in effect skating on skis and is much the quicker method. With the arms also working hard to provide power I can see why these guys have routinely produced VO2 max readings in the 90s - they are using more muscle than runners and as we know the lungs are not the limiting factor in oxygen uptake in athletes.

We were spectating at Punt Murgal at the bottom of the Muottas Murgal mountain. The mountain has a hotel on the top at about 2400m and the truly hard core marathon runners sleep there and train in the valley below during the day. Its a strategy that doesn't seem to have done Viktor Rothlin any harm the last few summers. We were at the top of a short but steep incline and the momentum of the leaders was such that they were able to skate up and over the top with ease. In fact the lead groups were just like a big city marathon. With a lead vehicle and camera bikes (well snowcats) and the TV helicopter up above. The whole thing was very well organised and the pre-event expo was treasure trove of skis, boots and all kinds of go faster wax, gel, glasses etc.

Running on snow has been fun. The paths in the forest which I'm used to blasting along in summer are well maintained and the snow is compacted so it is much like running off road in winter in the UK. There is some nice give under foot without disappearing up to your waist in powder. In fact even cranking up the pace to threshold was no problem under foot. And whether it was the change of scenery or surface my aching leg seemed to be much better and i'm finally through the hour mark again and able to do some drills. I'm hoping that the remaining discomfort is simply a legacy of relative inactivity since xmas and will soon shift as I get some more drills and strides into my programme.

While this length of layoff is far from ideal I suppose there are a couple of good things to come from it. For the first month or so I was sleeping like I was in hard marathon training and gradually I've been sleeping less as my body has recovered. I guess 5 years hard training with only routine breaks after marathons had led to a lot of cumulative fatigue. I also noticed a whole number of aches and pains start to emerge and regular massage has helped to get my body moving well again. And finally I have been able to pay much more attention than usual to conditioning work to the point of also starting a regular pilates class. And I really felt the benefit doing my drills yesterday. So much more control and power. Hopefully all this means that when i'm restored to full training there are a good few years racing left in my legs !