Running in Heat: Is the event worth the risk?

Each year, runners physically suffer from the effects of extreme heat during race events.  The consequences for these performances can vary from minor dehydration to life threatening and fatal conditions.  When temperatures rise, dehydration, increased heart rate, and increasing internal temperature tax an athlete’s body–sometimes to extensive detriment.  To combat high temperatures the body circulates more blood to the skin to withdraw heat—however, increased sweating has already reduced the athlete’s blood volume.  This in effect makes it more difficult for a runner’s body to keep pace while the heart works harder.  Dehydration can quickly increase as a result.  Exposure to high temperatures for long periods with increased dehydration compounds the elements for heat exhaustion and heat stroke–a health risk that is now seen as a greater peril to a runner than cardiac arrest.

An increased number of record high temperatures, high humidity heat waves, and abnormally warm nights are some of the side effects of climate change.  Data suggest that the number of extreme heat days will continue to increase.  The frequency of these kinds of heat episodes will mean both racers and race organizers will have to adapt to this continuing shift in temperature.

For a running event, extreme heat can place athletes in harm’s way.  Race planners have already recognized the high costs when temperatures soar.  In some cases,  a race has moved its start time to earlier morning hours or shifted the race date to a historically cooler season.  While this may result in beating the heat, these changes can also have a reverse effect—it may be too cold or  the event may be showered with precipitation.  For some events, these changes aren’t an option.  Races connected to certain events or holidays must remain in its designated season.  Further, races that have traditionally fell on optimal weather days are now dealing with weather abnormalities, and this makes capitalizing on optimal weather very difficult.

This summer has seen extreme variance in temperatures with many regions suffering through long stretches of heat waves and heat advisories.  Heat advisories occur when the heat index remains above 100 degrees for at least two hours.   For parts of the Midwest, temperatures soared to heat advisory heights in June.  Extreme heat before the month of July was once a rarity.  In Kansas City between the 1950’s and 90’s, only twice did these extreme temperatures occur this early in the year.  The June 2017 heat advisory marked the third occurrence since 1950.  These swings are on the uptick, and as a result, race and event planners will have to be more diligent and cautious about calling events if heat is a threat.  For an organization, calling an event is a difficult and costly choice—but not calling a race can prove fatal.

The operational costs related to planning and race day preparations are nearly impossible to recoup in the event of cancellation.  Planning a race event requires paying vendors–and if a race is cancelled or moved, these costs remain, but cost is a small matter when compared to human safety.  Still, organized races must take the necessary steps to survive the seesaw of uncertain temperatures.  Calendar and start times can and should be a starting point for planning, but this alone does not always suffice in predicting optimal temperatures.  Establishing an alternative race date can be a part of planning with the recognition that it limits some participants when their calendars may already be full or the race destination requires travel. Additionally, some vendors will require duplicate payment for the cancelled event and the new event.  A viable option could be to purchase heat-index weather insurance coverage at a limit to recoup those operational costs.  This type of weather insurance policy allows a race to run on another day and utilize payment for secondary costs or to even refund the participants, since overhead costs have been taken care of.

For runners, taking care and prioritizing keeping their core cool during racing is a significant step in the right direction if they choose to race on a hot day.  Precooling the body prior to a race has also been shown to benefit runners in multiple ways.  Wear white or light-colored clothing to reflect the sun.  If a tree provides shade on your course, take advantage even if it requires swinging out of the direct path.  Additionally, utilizing aid stations to grab a drink and pour a cup of water on your head is encouraged by race experts.  Talk to your physician–and if there is a likelihood you could race in the heat, prepare your body through practice and recommended hydration.

There are no easy answers.  The risks that heat poses to a runner depends on factors such as time of day, temperature, humidity, and location.   Heat days will continue to increase, and weather’s unpredictability will always make it difficult to completely prepare for all the elements.  Both runner and event planner assume these risks.  It is essential for a participant to know his or her body and recognize its limitations.  For an event planner, it is necessary to strategize to better position a race’s financial security.  Still, it is paramount that planners be hypercautious and choose a scenario that prioritizes participant safety if weather conditions are adverse.