Running in Humidity: Effects and Tips
Trouble in Paradise, or a running lesson from a hot and humid climate...
In February I travelled to Thailand to avoid the tough European winter. I was greeted by a roughly 30ºC heat and 40% humidity increase. My body was in shock. Hot is not even close to what I felt. I was sweating even just sitting, from dusk till dawn, and then some more. Basic necessary activities such as eating meant more sweating. The sun was super strong and bright. I didn't sleep great. I ate often, but the size of the portions has reduced. Normally I can pack in 3 fried eggs; there, I couldn't go beyond 1!
I thought, 'I'll never run in this country'. About two weeks into my trip I got restless, it was time to fight my brain and I went out for an 8am run. It was already too late for me, it was getting hot and the sun was baking. I must have looked like a running fountain! The only other occasion I sweated this much was in Bikram yoga. Every part of my body was covered in water. My legs felt good and I survived but I sported a red face for several hours after the run, felt hot, a bit dizzy and elevated. And from then on for 3 months, no matter whether I had a good or bad run, the post zombie feeling never left me.
So what exactly was happening to my body?
I changed the runs from 8am to 6am, increased my liquid intake and ate as much as I could, but each run slightly killed me. I had to do this research to understand what exactly is happening to me.
The body. Environment. Heat. Humidity. Sweat. Heat loss.
I learnt that the sweat glands located in our skin transport water to the skin. When they do they also carry heat. An average person can sweat off around 1L of water per hour for duration of roughly two hours. But the body will only lose heat if the sweat evaporates, and that will only happen if the surrounding air is free of water.
According to one source when the humidity rises to 65% it is very hard for the body to lose heat, and at 75% it is almost impossible. For evaporation to be successful, the environment has to be dry. The ability of an environment with high humidity to accept water is very poor, therefore not much sweat can evaporate. With the sweat dripping off, the body loses only a small amount of heat.
With increased heat and humidity, the heart rate will also increase: up to 10 beats per minute in 50% to 90% humidity. In temperatures ranging from 15ºC- 23ºC it can increase by 2-4 beats per minute and in 23°C to 32°C up to 10 beats per minute.
I didn't take any measurements, but if my average climate temperature was 33ºC with 70-90% humidity, my heart rate must have gone up at least by 20bpm. Again, only guessing, but let's say it rose to 175. That would be close to my HR threshold. To run continuously at this HR means lots of work. This explains my 'zombie states'.
How could I prepare for conditions like these?
Acclimatisation takes about 10 days. I found out that wearing an extra layer on top of the usual running wear during training helps to prepare for the heat. And hot Bikram yoga will definitely let the body know what 40ºC feels like.
Acclimatisation works both ways. On my return home, the transition was not so smooth either. I was happy and well, but experienced low HR and dizziness, no real appetite, eating unusually small portions. It took well over a week to adjust and get back to my usual European hungry self.
This article is based on my experiences from holiday and running for fun. If you are training for a race in a hot and humid climate and need more thorough information on the subject I found extensive advice in Tim Noakes' Lore of Running and various online Comrades or Marathon de Sable blogs. Run and Become also organises talks on the subject, so why don't you sign up for our bi-monthly newsletter and stay informed.
Hydration and Humidity
It is important to drink, not only prior to the run, but also during the run. Keep hydrated on your non-running days too! It is good to develop a habit of drinking well and regularly well before travelling. The body will need not only water, but electrolytes too. Before travelling I stocked up on my number one ever NUUN electrolyte tablets. I never travel without them. I love the choice of flavours - each fresh and light - and the fact that it works for me in all conditions, be it sports or upset stomach.
High 5 Zero tablets are a similar product. Neither of them contains sugar. Another great source is Elete, with a mix of inland sea water (for the salt) and potassium and calcium, providing a neutral flavoured electrolyte replacement. No matter how great they are, it would be a shame not to alternate these electrolytes with the ones found in natural products. The country is covered in fruit and veg markets and there is no way of not indulging in fresh coconuts, bananas, fruit and milk shakes of your choice; the water rich watermelons and cucumbers and much more. The fruits there taste delicious and your body will be grateful for it.
Be careful with your alcohol intake. The tropical climate means not only change in weather temperatures but also in alcohol strength. You can get dehydrated in no time. The smallest rise in temperature can have a remarkable effect on the body. One month in, when I thought I got used to the heat, from one day to another the temperature went up 2-3ºC but it felt like at least +10ºC to me.
Drinking cold water during the day and after the run helps the body to cool down. I used to dip into the ocean at the end of my runs.
If you are confused about your hydration needs, follow this easy formula. You weigh yourself naked before and after the run, and follow your liquid intake during the run. Take away the post-run weight from the pre-run weight, and add the liquid you have drunk. This will show you how much fluid you have lost. Dividing this figure by the number of miles you have run, will show you how much fluid you need per mile. Following this formula should help you maintaining your body's functions.
Clothing and Humidity
When choosing your running wear the main word to remember is 'moisture wicking'. Go for a light and loose outfit that doesn't stick to your body and aids evaporation. Dark clothes hold the heat, so instead choose whites, that reflect it. And the moisture trapping cotton is an absolute NO.
There are many debates on the use of sunscreen. Me personally, I prefer not to use it during runs because I feel like my skin can't breath properly. If I absolutely have to use it, I go for something very light. Having said that, I would never go out running in baking heat, unless it's a race.
Start slow, they say
I am a typical example of 'just do it' runner and sometimes I pay for it. It is advisable to start with short runs to get used to the new conditions. If short runs are not enough for you, try doing a few short runs (morning and evening) rather than a long one straightaway.
It is important to take into account any pre-existing medical condition. If you have any, consult your plans with your doctor first, as the risks of heat stroke or hyperthermia can be higher.
Getting used to a new country often means diseases or diarrhoea. Should you be unfortunate enough to suffer from either, make sure you stay hydrated.
This has nothing to do with the climate conditions, but! In Thailand, depending on where you stay, there are lots of stray dogs. I've seen a number of people running with a wooden stick for protection. Is this a good idea? I don't know. I have never used it. If a dog chased me, I stopped and waited till they calmed down and then carried on. But one time I met this massive dog that fell in love with me, and kept jumping at me and I couldn't leave. He even made holes in my running shorts. The old lady owner picking grass did nothing but laugh, she thought it was funny that her dog should fall for a 'farang'. A stick would definitely not have helped to free myself from this giant.
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