For me, one of the joys of being a runner is that my hobby allows me to spend time outdoors, immersed in the natural world. I gain the physical and mental benefits from the act of running itself and the positive effects associated simply with being outside surrounded by nature. The latter is something we all probably feel intuitively, but which now is also being confirmed by more and more scientific studies. In the Greater Des Moines area, we are fortunate to have access to many wonderful trails and parks – and even when running in the city, we are never far from green space.
One ‘side-effect’ of this time spent outdoors is that most runners become highly attuned to the prevailing weather conditions, either in anticipation of an imminent run or from our experience during a recent one. If asked, we could probably give a pretty accurate estimate of the current temperature, humidity, wind intensity/direction, chances of precipitation… and any other factors that affect our comfort outside! And we are certainly more aware of the external environment than the average non-athlete, many of whom go from heated/air-conditioned house to heated/air-conditioned vehicle to heated/air-conditioned work/school and back again, depending on the time of year.
Of course, that doesn’t mean we enjoy all the outdoor conditions equally. In Iowa, we are treated to a significant range in weather between the extremes of the summer and winter months, with summer and winter running having their own unique challenges. With each change of season, we also have to remind ourselves of the most appropriate choices from our running wardrobes. The two seasons are so different that I can never quite decide which I like the least!
In the winter, the frigid temperatures can be a real shock to the system, especially if accompanied by the bitter wind. The need for multiple layers of clothing certainly helps to slow a runner down even more – and poor clothing selection can lead to the real possibility of hypothermia. However, my biggest fear in the winter months is ICE!! I could create a map of the DSM metro area showing all the places where I have taken a fall – and I would be many locations marked.
In the summer, the heat and (especially) the humidity put more physiological stress on the body. Suddenly, running becomes a lot harder and (dare I say it?) less pleasant. There is a limit to how much clothing we can shed to keep cool (without getting arrested), although the variety of ‘technical’ sweat-wicking materials now available does at least help.
Probably somewhere between these extremes lies what each of us individually would consider ideal running weather. (And this is not necessarily the same as ideal walking weather, ideal cycling weather – or ideal ‘just standing around’ weather). Different runners likely have different preferences. My favorite running conditions would probably be temperatures in the 50’s (though 40’s and 60’s are pretty good, too), low humidity, a light breeze, and no rain. There is also an element of relativity: temperatures in the ’60s feel a lot warmer in the spring, as we emerge from the cold of winter, than they do in the autumn, after several months of summer heat!
Regardless of our preferences, a typical marathon training cycle of 12-16 weeks means that those living in Iowa will inevitably have to do some of our training in less-than-clement weather. For the October IMT Des Moines Marathon, that means the challenge of increasing mileage during the summer heat and humidity – and this year has been particularly tough, especially when it comes to humidity. We may have had only 1 or 2 days (?) where the ambient temperature actually reached 100F, but we have had plenty of sticky ones where the ‘feels like’ temperature has been considerably higher. For me, it is definitely true that “It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity”!
I have found that I can’ get away with not having to modify my running too much during a brief hot and humid spell (maybe 5 days or less). However, after that, my body finally realizes what it is being subjected to and starts to rebel! Acclimation is needed – and any attempt to ignore this will usually end badly. I have found from experience that there is a fine balance between pushing your limits and just plain draining yourself – and the latter will typically mean going into the fall racing season with dead legs. Not a good feeling!
The accepted wisdom is that about 2 weeks are needed to acclimate to excessive heat and humidity. By adjusting the distance and pace of our runs during this period, we can become better adapted to the conditions. Nevertheless, I’m not sure that I ever become fully acclimated: my summer running pace always seems to be slower, no matter that the same effort would result in faster times in cooler conditions.
Whilst many runners will take the opportunity to cut back on the intensity of their training over the summer, those of us with longer-distance races ahead don’t have the luxury of sticking to only shorter and slower runs. Long runs in the heat and humidity can be challenging both physically and mentally. Some people adopt the approach of running for time rather than distance in the summer. For me, the key to surviving summer running without getting too discouraged is to run on effort and ignore the pace. Of course, thanks to running watches, that is easier said than done! Even if you don’t look at your watch during a run, the numbers are hard to avoid afterward – and what had felt like a good run at the time can suddenly seem disappointing when you discover how slowly you were running. I definitely need to train myself to ‘discard’ the data before I even look at them, rather than ‘save’ them! However, on the positive side, I try and use miserable conditions as an incentive to do some speedier training: when easy runs feel like a slog, faster-paced sessions aren’t going to feel much worse – plus, you will be finished sooner!
As tough as summer marathon training can be, it will certainly build confidence (not to mention character!) When the change of seasons finally brings cooler, fresher weather, running will seem so much easier, and we will feel like we are flying. Perfect timing for the races ahead! And should the weather on race day be on the warm side for mid-October, we will know that we have handled far worse. This year, in particular, we can certainly feel that we have earned that finisher medal!
Most importantly, though, I always remind myself to be thankful when struggling through those difficult summer runs. Thankful that my biggest complaint is just the weather. Thankful that I am not injured and wishing that I COULD be complaining about the running weather. And especially thankful that I still have the good health to pursue my crazy running avocation. That is something that should never be taken for granted!
-by Shelia Maddock