How to Maximize your Fitness Gains During the Summer (or “What the Eff Was I Thinking Choosing to Live on the Sun???”)
So this isn’t one of those articles with the usual litany of tips for handling the summer heat. I’m not downplaying any of those things, all of which are incredibly important for getting through the summer. I just figure you’ve heard it before on wetting/freezing your hat/shirt, getting an early start, carrying water, freezing your water, wearing white, wearing sunscreen, wearing high tech cooling materials, working out indoors, etc. This article is more focused on the some of the limitations training in the heat imposes on your training plan and how to maximize the fitness gains you can make while training in those conditions.
For those of you lucky enough not to live in Phoenix during the summer, this is the time of year where we all question what we were thinking moving here. It’s equivalent to February in the northern part of the country where it’s hard to get out and exercise, and next season’s fitness goals seem a long time away. Unfortunately, there is no equivalent to bundling up to overcome the elements here. There is only so much clothing you can remove before getting arrested, sunburned, chafed (or all three). Mentally, this is a very difficult time for athletes who still have months until their fall season races and the months of oppressive heat are now coupled with humidity as well. So what’s a once enthusiastic triathlete to do to turn lemons into really, really warm lemonade?
Pick a race that matches your training conditions
If you’ve been spending week in and week out training in blistering heat and low humidity, then pick a nice travel race that mirrors those conditions. Although you may want to do a travel race to get OUT of these conditions, you are optimized for harsh conditions, so you may as well leave the rest of your competitors lying on the side of the road looking like lobsters boiled on one side. Even if the getaway race you’ve picked is just moderately warm for the locals (but still helps you recharge your batteries by getting out of town and racing), it’s likely your heat conditioning will still give you an advantage. Trying to qualify for Nationals or Kona? A hot weather race may be the way to go.
Focus your outdoor workouts on base or tempo training
Exercising in the heat caps your wattage. The hotter it is the more you have to use your energy to cool yourself and the less you can push. The less you can push, the less speed will gain from your speed work.
You get as acclimated as you are going to get to an environment after two weeks (with as little as 30 minutes a day). Going out and trying to do speed work in the heat week after week is not going to be as effective as doing it in the cooler temperatures. Focus on doing your base work in the summer, which you can still do very effectively in hot weather.
Save the interval / speed work for indoors or Fall
See above. Since your wattage is capped in the heat, you will get more out of your speedwork if you do it in lower temperatures. This may mean saving your build phases to the fall or performing key workouts inside on the trainer or the treadmill. Just a reminder that you need to set that treadmill to 1% to simulate your outdoor pace. Also, if you can’t stay focused indoors and really drive yourself to the pain cave, then don’t bother…it still may make more sense to do these workouts outdoors.
Work on your technique
Summer is a perfect time to work on your technique, particularly your swim technique. On those days you have a double, you can still fit in a swim workout in the afternoon/evening no matter what the temperature. If you’re renowned for cutting your core or strength workouts, use the summer to get those back in the rotation. Take the time during your base runs to work on form drills during your warm-up and warm-down. Take the time during your base rides to incorporate some one legged drills, get used to a new bike fit, or finally start staying in aero.
Incorporate faster segments to avoid the “Pace Doldrums”
If you continue to run the same pace week after week, your body has a tendency to deteriorate to a slower pace over time. If you’re doing a lot of base work, incorporate three or four 30 second sections of faster turnover (or faster spin if your cycling) followed by 90 seconds of normal pace work. This isn’t sprinting to drive up your heart rate, it’s more concentrating on quicker turnover to keep your muscles tuned up to move at a faster frequency.
Adjust your heart rate zones or rely on Perceived Effort
Keep in mind your heart rate zones may shift up slightly. It can be almost a beat a minute for every degree. Because of this, if you’re using heart rate zones to determine your output, you may be workout out at a slower pace than you need to. If your zones were determined from testing indoors or when it was cooler, go more on perceived effort in the summer and let your heart rate creep up. Remember you should be able to hold a conversation with the occasional pauses when doing base workouts.
Pay extra attention to recovery
As you know, exercising in the heat requires a lot more fluid and electrolyte intake. Weigh yourself before and after your workouts to make sure you’re taking in enough fluid. If you’re staying up late but getting up early, add an afternoon nap. Keep in mind that alcohol consumption really affects your heat tolerance (and not in a good way).
Cut yourself some slack
Because of the extra energy it takes to cool yourself in the heat, your pace is not going to be the same in the summer as it was in cooler temps. You aren’t losing as much fitness as you think you are. If you try to keep the same paces you were doing in spring, you will not be training in the right zones. Also, going to bed and getting up early and exercising in oppressive heat takes a lot of discipline. Cut yourself some slack and give yourself a pat on the back for making it out the door at all. If it’s your off season, then you may want to take some time off from the sport and recharge your batteries. Every year should have some downtime from triathlon, so plan that into your summer when it’s hardest to train. Triathlon is a multi-season endeavor. Remember, it should be fun and Fall is right around the corner.