Be Fit For Life

with Ellen Cohen-Kaplan

Exercising safely in the great outdoors during heat and humidity

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My Tuesday, Thursday and weekend training partners at 6 AM on Saturday morning


Some fellow members of Team Zakim I met at the Brewster water stop


Sitting on the “ice couch” at the Wellfleet water stop, 20 miles before the finish


Our aide-de-camp, Jordie, who was our major support and chauffeur for this ride,  at the Provincetown finish

This past weekend marked another milestone for the Dana Farber Cancer Institute. The 37th Pan Mass Challenge had over 6300 riders raising nearly 33 million so far to reach a lofty goal. Although this is an extremely well-orchestrated event, there are always health issues related to endurance training in the height of the summer. This year’s temperatures challenged even some seasoned riders, but many newcomers had difficulty staying cool and hydrated.

This week, I encountered several clients and fellow riders who experienced dehydration symptoms in disguise. The common symptoms of thirst, fatigue, and lack of sweating are easy to identify, but you may not realize that dizziness, extreme fatigue, and muscle spasms are also signs of dehydration.  One rider even experienced paralytic ileus, which is an intestinal blockage in the absence of an actual physical blockage. This is caused by electrolyte imbalance, which can be brought on by exertion in heat without proper rehydration and refueling.

Over the years, we’ve learned some essential techniques to stay healthy and continue training during some grueling heat waves.  The following list is a combination of  tips from the article below, plus our own tried and true methods.

Try to exercise in the coolest part of the day, with morning being the best bet. Second best is evening, after the sun goes down, but if you exercise close to bedtime, you may feel very awake due to increased levels of adrenaline and other activating hormones.  Also, try to control the environment where you exercise, and you’ll stay cooler simply by running in the shade or near water where there’s a more consistent breeze. Temperatures may vary by as much as 10-15 degrees in the shade.

Drink a lot of water before a run, ride, or swim. Even in the morning, it’s important to hydrate, because you lose fluid during the nighttime.  Drink ice water to bring your body temperature down. How much water is enough?  Over the course of the day, you should consume half your body weight in ounces. So if you weigh 130 pounds, you should be drinking 65 ounces of water total throughout the day.

Choose your workout clothing wisely. I used to think that the tight, colorful jerseys and shorts that cyclists wore were just for show.  Now I appreciate their essential wick-away properties and close fit for staying cool, preventing chafing, and decreasing wind resistance.  Another obvious advantage is that bright colors and reflective strips ensure that drivers see you if you’re running or cycling on the road.

Tune in to your body – sometimes your exercise goal can obscure  what your body is trying to tell you. I advise my clients to avoid taking pain relievers like ibuprofen before a workout.  It’s difficult to gauge how your body is responding to exercise when your pain is masked by an analgesic.

If you’re exercising for more than a half hour, take a break at least every half hour to drink. Very often, you may not feel thirsty, but that doesn’t mean your system does not need hydration. Thirst is harder to detect as we age, and by the time you’re thirsty, you are already depleted.

How much fluid is enough?  For every 15 minutes of exercise, you should drink at least 4 oz of fluid. In very rare cases, a condition called hyponatremia can occur, which is when you drink so much water that you deplete your electrolyte balance. This can then lead to faintness, dizziness, and temporary brain dysfunction. Be sure if you’re exerting yourself in hot conditions, or over several hours, you include drinks with electrolytes or enough food to fuel your muscular and cardiac needs. Some easy ways to ensure you’re getting the right nutrition is to include bananas, peanut butter, nuts, oranges, granola or yogurt, all of which contain either protein, potassium, sodium or healthy fats.

Try to cool your body as soon as possible after your run, walk or bike ride. Jumping in a body of water is excellent for this, as is taking a cold shower (see last week’s blog). Sweating is our body’s natural way of cooling ourselves through the evaporation of the water on our bodies, so getting wet will accelerate that cooling.

Exercise indoors or cut your outdoor regimen short when temperatures exceed 90 degrees, or when humidity is high. When the mercury goes above 70, expect that your speed may be compromised, and focus on the activity, not the time it takes. Many of us are so used to being outdoors, we don’t want to sacrifice communing with nature as we get fit. However, exerting yourself for extended periods of time in hot and humid weather takes a large toll on your body. When your body tries to maintain homeostasis by cooling itself, it’s even more  taxing than heating itself in the cool weather.

See for more details.

Temperatures in the 90’s with high humidity are predicted for later on this week. If you can’t exercise in the early morning, opt for indoor activities or classes. When the mercury returns to normal summer levels, go ahead and put on your wicking shirts and shorts, drink lots of water, watch the temperature readings, get out there early in the morning,  and enjoy the sights and sounds of nature, but be safe!

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