Heat Training for Sparta

This article aims to help Spartathletes prepare for the possible high temperatures in Greece during the race.  The last two Spartathlons have been relatively cool – there was some hot weather on the second day in 2017 and in 2018 the race was lashed by Medicane “Zorba”… it feels like 2019 is due to be a hot one!

Given the potentially dramatic difference in temperatures between the UK and Greece, good heat acclimation could be a huge contributor to British success rate at the race. 

The recent rise in popularity of races such as Marathon des Sables means there’s  actually a great deal of relevant advice and scientific research applicable to Spartathletes. 

The science

Those of you that can remember back to your GCSE or A-level science days will recall humans are endotherms, meaning we produce our own body heat and regulate our temperature through a variety of mechanisms (such as sweating and shivering). The following image provides an overview of this to save going into too much detail. 

https://www.earthslab.com/physiology/thermoregulation-human-body

The reason this is relevant here is because the goal of heat adaption prior to a race such as Spartathlon is to make your body better at coping with the increased stress on the body in terms of factors like elevated core temperature, increased sweat and electrolyte loss, and elevated heart rate. 

Timing

Evidence suggests that it takes seven to ten days for the body to make heat acclimatisation adaptions (1) and, while there is some debate on how long it takes to lose these physiological changes, it is though that, at the slower end, you lose one day of heat acclimation for every five days spent away from the heat, and at the faster end, that you lose one day of heat acclimation for every two days spent away from the heat (2). 

Methods

Heat chamber

Thanks to the popularity of races like Marathon des Sables, a lot of universities across the country now let punters book sessions in their specialised environmental chambers. The main benefit of these is that they allow for training under very specific parameters in terms of heat and humidity and tend to be supervised by an experienced sports technician who should understand your training requirements and be able to help you get the best out of your sessions. The main downside is that these sessions are on the expensive side; from about £80 per hour, although a lot let you book with a fellow athlete to split the cost.

Ian Hammet training at the Human Performance Centre at Bedfordshire University

Cat Simpson training at Kingston University

Training in hot environment for two weeks prior to the race

Flying out to Athens a couple of weeks before Spartathlon to train in similar conditions to the race (assuming there isn’t a prolonged tropical storm prior to the race) would provide suitable conditions for pre-race heat acclimatisation, however for most with jobs, families, etc, this option isn’t necessarily a practical option.

Training in a hot environment

Layering up on runs 

Probably not an option a lot of people consider, but putting on a few extra layers for your runs is a really effective way of simulating the effects of running in warmer conditions, as it triggers the desired adaptations by raising your core  temperature. It goes without saying that feeling like a complete idiot running around in a down jacket and woolly hat in the height of summer comes for free with this low cost approach, so wear your Spartathlon t-shirt over your layers so the world knows your plight.

Layering example

Sauna

Another fairly practical option, a sauna will also raise your core temperature, although in a more passive way that those previously mentioned.

Even better is jumping in a sauna straight after a run in a heat chamber or down jacket to prolong  the Pros – low cost, practical

Cons – it’s pretty boring!

Sauna Method

  • Try to have the sauna set at around 85 to 90 degrees C.   Much cooler than this and you won’t get the adaptation benefits (or you’ll have to stay in for way longer a time than you likely have spare), much hotter and you won’t be able to stand the heat for very long at all.
  • Get to the sauna 5, ideally 6, times per week, with 1 or 2 rest days.   Just like any form of training you are looking to start off with something achievable and build it up with gradual consistency.
  • Take in a large bottle of water and/or electrolytes with you.  This is for drinking, not dunking over your head.
  • First session, aim for 15 minutes of continuous exposure.  This doesn’t sound like a lot and you may manage it easily, or if you’re not used to this it could be quite hard.   Either way make sure you get this 15 minutes done. If you have to break it up, do, but ideally this gets done in one continuous block.   
  • You’ll probably experience feelings of discomfort and thoughts of “I want to get out” (sounds a bit like the race itself)…. Push through these to reach the prescribed time, but if you feel sick, weak, or dizzy then STOP!
  • Try to avoid cooling yourself with water poured over yourself.  This will feel good and will allow you to stay in longer, but may lessen the exposure effects.  You want sweating, lots and lots of sweating. Make sure you drink to rehydrate.
  • With this first session out of the way you can now start to build up the exposure time on subsequent days.   Build yourself a mini-plan of what you will do each day depending on when you start and how many sessions you plan to do.   The idea is to get to the stage about 1 week out from race day where you can sit in the sauna for 45 to 50 minutes at a time.  Build up gradually and don’t be tempted to make massive jumps in case you hurt yourself. Remember to push through negative / quit thoughts to reach your target, but please do get out if you are feeling sick, dizzy or weak.  Here’s a sample plan:

 

Day  Minutes in Sauna
1 15
2 17
3 20
4 20
5 Rest
6 22
7 22
8 24
9 26
10 28
11 Rest
12 30
13 30
14 32
15 34
16 36
17 Rest
18 38
19 38
20 40
21 42
22 Rest
23 45
24 Rest Day
25 Rest Day
26 Travel / Registration Day
27 Registration / Drop Bag Day
28 Race Day!

 

Why (we think) It Works

It’s to do with an increase in blood plasma volume and red blood cell count, but we’ll refer you to more authoritative sources than us for further reading:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25432420

https://eagleleisure.co.uk/sauna-steroids-effect-sauna-performance-endurance-training/

Sources 

(1) Pandolf, K. (1998). Time Course of Heat Acclimation and its Decay. International Journal of Sports Medicine,19(S 2). doi:10.1055/s-2007-971985

(2) Périard, J. D., Racinais, S., & Sawka, M. N. (2015). Adaptations and mechanisms of human heat acclimation: Applications for competitive athletes and sports. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports,25, 20-38. doi:10.1111/sms.12408

(3) …  Notably we depended on Bob Hearn’s advice which in turn depended on this fantastic article on the Badwater site: 

http://www.badwater.com/university/heat-training-in-the-sauna/

During The Race

As well as doing some acclimitisation work before you travel, you can also take quite a few steps during the race to lessen the impact of the heat.   It’s likely it’s always going to hurt but some of these might make the difference between it being a race-ender or not:

  • When you get off the bus at the Acropolis it might be quite cool, even cold.  Have some old / discardable gear or a foil blanket to keep you warm as you hang around at the start.
  • If it’s a hot year, you may still get an hour, perhaps two, where the heat isn’t too crazy.   Be warned though, once the sun is up things will heat up quickly! Don’t leave it until you feel overheated before you start taking some cooling actions:
  • At checkpoints, get a sponge of water over your head and the back of your neck.
  • If there is ice (which is not always the case) you can try to wrap some in a buff and get it round your neck and/or wrists.  Or take an “ice bandana” as a buff is not always the easiest thing to get ice to stay inside 🙂
  • You can also put ice down your top if you’re wearing a waistbelt.  It bounces around and cools your torso. Watch out for meltwater though which can cause chafing.
  • A further alternative if the heat is really bad is to stash a cotton t-shirt in a drop bag and switch into it – it can be totally soaked in water and will retain it longer than a running shirt which dries really quickly.
  • If there’s no ice and things are really bad, consider cooling yourself with some water poured over your “cooling points” – as well as your neck and wrists you also have these at the tops of your thighs (on the inside) and on the inside of the ankles.  
  • Make sure your hat provides sufficient cover – “desert” hats with neck and side flaps are useful.
  • Consider wearing arm sleeves and knee length shorts or skort to minimise the amount of skin exposed to the sun.   Arm sleeves are also a handy place to stuff some ice!
  • During Day 1 it might feel like the heat is never going to end.   However, watch out for potentially rapidly descending temperatures once the sun drops.   Make sure you have clothing options for the night-time sections and be warned that it can get very cold over the mountain and on the plains of Tegea afterwards.  Many British runners have been caught out by this over the years so best to be forewarned. Popular places to stash night-time clothes changes are Halkion Village, Lyrkia, Mountain Base, Nestani.

We hope this article helps in some small way and good luck with the race!

This article was put together by Darren Strachan (Spartathlon Finisher 2017 & 2018) and Cat Simpson (Spartathlon Finisher and 1st British Female 2018)