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June 19, 2016

Run safe in the summer heat

Looking at the weather reports and seeing the temperatures, it seems that summer has arrived a little early this year. For a runner, it creates a few problems for those who want to do a longer run; and you really have to be aware of heat problems.

This year, there are added problems to the high temperatures. With all of the rain in the previous months, the humidity is also high. When you look at the temperature, you are only seeing part of the problem. There is that extra item you see on the reports called a “heat index” that takes into account not only the temperature, but also the amount of humidity and how the temperature actually feels for a runner. The temperature might be a “comfortable” 95 degrees, but the heat index makes it feel like 105 degrees.

If a runner has been out putting in the miles every day and training, the body will acclimatize to a certain extent. This is not to say that the danger of heat exhaustion is less, as it can still happen; but the runner’s body adjusts with more sweating to get rid of internal heat that builds up.

Adding proper clothing helps bring the moisture from sweating to the surface of the shirt, and allows more evaporation to take place. The high-tech mesh shirts are good for this, since the moisture is wicked away to the outside of the shirt and not absorbed into the fabric of the shirt. A little breeze from running, or maybe a slight wind that day, helps evaporate the moisture.

A technique used by some runners is to determine the direction of the wind at the start of the run, and head out with the wind at their back. That way, when they head back, the wind is against them; and it works, or at least feels, like it is cooler.

There is a difference between running here in central Texas versus parts of the country that have equally high temperatures. Running in Phoenix, Arizona, the temperatures can reach 100 degrees in the summer, the same as in Texas. The difference when running in Phoenix or Tucson is that the conditions are what is called a “dry heat.” Evaporation from sweating is good, since there is only a little humidity in the air.

Here in our area, the humidity is relatively high, and the evaporation from sweating is not as good. Since sweating is a way that the body works to stay cool, a problem arises if the evaporation is limited, and the sweat actually becomes a hindrance rather than a benefit. The sweat acts like insulation and prevents the body from cooling off. Without realizing it, the danger of heat exhaustion increases, since the body is not cooling itself.

Some runners like to run with a minimum cover, like a running bra, or shirtless, when they go for a run. The thought behind this is that fewer clothes worn will make for cooler running. If it is cold out, you put on a jacket or warm shirt; so the opposite would be to take extra clothing off if it gets warm.

This sounds logical; but when you run in Texas and high humidity, what happens is that the sweat does not evaporate into already moisture-filled air. The sweat stays on the skin and acts like that jacket you put on in cooler weather. Core temperature will build up, and things start to happen.

Since you are building up a higher core temperature, the body will try to compensate by sweating more, causing faster dehydration. For some runners, one of the first signs of heat exhaustion is “goose bumps” on the skin. The body is trying to create more surface area for evaporation.

I have had the hair on the back of my neck start to stand up, or so if feels like. It becomes hard to focus and concentrate, and the pace will suddenly be much slower.

Wearing a high-tech shirt will wick the sweat from the skin to the outside of the shirt, where it will better evaporate. The material of the shirt offers more surface area to absorb the sweat and - in effect - cool the body better.

After a run, the runner will notice that the shirt will actually feel cold to the touch because of the evaporation. It sounds strange to wear a shirt on a hot day; but it actually will be beneficial and will help delay any chances of heat exhaustion.

If you recognize the symptoms of heat exhaustion during a run, the procedure is to stop running, find a cool place to relax, drink cool water and let the body do its best to cool off. The saying that “experienced runners do not have as much danger as beginners” is not a good point to focus on. All runners are subject to heat exhaustion if proper steps are not taken on hot and humid days.

I have seen, and experienced, heat exhaustion in runners; and it takes fast methods to correct the problem before it gets worse. When you see a runner turn too soon and bounce off a store window, fall into a ditch, stagger and stumble but still think they can run, action needs to be taken.

Run safe this summer.

Moe Johnson
Dr. Maurice Johnson - better known around San Marcos as “Moe” - is a professor in the Department of Health, P.E., Recreation and Dance at Texas State University - San Marcos. Moe has been a fixture in the San Marcos running community - both as a runner and race organizer - since way back when Moby Dick was a minnow. His column on running and fitness appears each Sunday in the Sports section of the San Marcos Daily Record.

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