I staggered, reaching out to keep from falling on my face.
I threw up. I was scared.
“How could I have anything left in me?!”
I had been vomiting for eight miles.
I managed to run a bit more — well, kind of. It was not so much running as just throwing one foot in front of the other. I am not sure which was tougher: running, or trying to focus my eyes on the blurry white line that stretched out endlessly on the road beneath me. I prayed that the finish line would find me before I turned sunny-side-up on the pavement.
This was in 2000 during the Brazil Ironman Triathlon in Porto Seguro, and (clearly) I was getting my butt kicked in the sub-Amazon rainforest heat. As an athlete and a sports medicine specialist, I learned a priceless lesson from my life-threatening experience in Brazil that day:
If you don’t beat the heat, the heat beats you.
Unfortunately, there is way too much confusing and sometimes contradicting advice available on heat and hydration.
“Drink X or Y or Z ounces of this per hour.”
“All you need is water.”
“Drink this sports drink.”
“Drink that sports drink.”
If you are confused, you are not alone. Google search “heat and hydration,” and you will get 14.5 million links. Does anyone have time to read and digest all of this stuff? No. But is it important to know? Yes. Extremely important.
So, what I want to do is give you a simple and effective heat management plan based on my personal experience sweating out six Ironman triathlons and Spartan Races, built on my 20 years as the Head Athletic Trainer/Physical Therapist of the NFL Jacksonville Jaguars in hot and humid Florida. This is what you really need to know, to train and race like a seasoned Spartan.
It is race day. As a result of your Spartan training, you have prepared yourself well, and you have mentally rehearsed your plans for tackling the obstacles you will face on the course, to the extent that is possible anyway, given that Spartan prides itself on surprising racers.
It’s summer. You will push your body hard in a hot environment. Your body will need four things to perform effectively:
- Safe Core Temperature — necessary for all chemical reactions in the body, especially the vital organs.
- Water — the stuff that makes up more than 60 percent of your body.
- Electrolytes — chemicals that make important bodily processes happen.
- Calories — basic fuel to power your body.
My No-Nonsense Plan
My no-nonsense plan makes sure you address these 4 needs in 6 steps.
1. Cool Yourself. Normally, your body rids itself of heat by sweating. But when the air is warmer than you are, that does not work as well. To keep your body cool in the heat:
- Consistently apply cool water to your head, body and extremities to lower your body core temperature. As an example, if you’re rope climbing out of a water pit, a quick full body dunk is just what you need.
- Dress in lightweight, light-colored, breathable gear.
And practice good skin hygiene, because sunburned skin is even worse at dissipating heat.
2. Drink Early, Drink Often and Drink Smart. Consume plenty of your body’s favorite fluid: water. That means avoiding fluids with carbonation, caffeine or other stimulants. Drink at least 3 full mouthfuls of water every 12 to 15 minutes during a race. Because of the importance of being consistent with this hydration plan, consider bringing your own water. A Spartan hydration pack can make this possible and it comes highly recommended for the Spartan Super and the Beast.
3. Snack, and Snack Saltily. Salt is a source of sodium, an important electrolyte. Pretzels are one source of salt before, during and after a workout or race.
These snacks will also help to replenish your calories. Supplement them with complex carbs, such as bagels, a Clif Shot gel or three Clif Shot Blok chews. Your body can only absorb 200–300 calories per hour during exercise though. If you eat more than that, your body will not be able to absorb the extra calories and your stomach may feel bloated.
4. Avoid Energy Drinks. It is not uncommon for an athlete to drink an “energy drink” for some “pick-me-up energy” during strenuous physical activity resulting in a “pick me up at the hospital.” This happens for two reasons:
- The stimulants and sugar in energy drinks will slow down your stomach’s ability to absorb fluids, and cool your core. This is the last thing you need during a workout in the heat.
- Energy drinks typically “rev up” your body’s metabolism, this causes your body to produce more heat internally. That’s the other “last thing” you need.
5. Avoid Certain Supplements and Medications. Check with your doctor to determine whether any of your supplements or medications are increasing your risk of heat illness during exercise in the heat.
6. Be Smart — Two big mistakes I have seen people make are doing too much and ignoring the early warning signs of heat illness. It is one thing to race in the heat when you are in shape, but racing in the heat when you are out of shape can be a dangerous combination.
Dizziness, light-headedness, confusion, nausea, headache, rapid total body fatigue, and sudden dry skin are signs of heat illness that can have serious consequences. Do not try to tough it out. Stop. Rest. Hydrate and cool your body.
Incorporate these tips into your weekly Spartan training. Make staying well-hydrated a habit. If you have read this far, you probably get it and you will use these six tips to keep yourself on the obstacle course and out of the hospital ER.
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