Matt Long looks at some recent research exploring optimum environmental conditions for racing.
You don’t need to be a ‘fast runner’ be aware that the effects of climate change and the widespread concern in the scientific community over ‘global warming’ will inevitably impact on our sport.
Writing recently in the Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise journal, Mantzios et al. (2022) conducted a large-scale analysis of 1258 races held between 1936 and 2019 across 84 locations and 42 countries. Their findings have implications for the way in which you respond to weather conditions both in training and racing.
Mantzios et al. (2022) disaggregated the notion of ‘weather’ into 4 variables which could be operationalised and measured, namely:
• Wind Speed
• Solar Radiation
The races analysed by Mantzios et al. were staged across a diverse range of weather conditions: air temperature from −5°C to 35°C (very cold to very hot); relative humidity from 14% to 100% (dry to extremely humid), wind speed from 0 to 25 km·h−1 (zero to strong wind), and solar radiation from 0 to 1234 W·m−2 (dark to extreme sunlight).
In disaggregating the notion of ‘weather’, the variable which was considered to be most associated with athlete performance was (1) air temperature (allocated a feature importance score of 40%) followed by (2) relative humidity (feature importance score of 26%), (3) solar radiation (feature importance score of 18%), and then finally (4) wind speed (feature importance score of 16%).
Across all endurance events sampled they found that races with an air temperature >17.5°C on the one hand or <10°C on the other were correlated with a decline in athletic performance. So conversely, peak athletic performances tended to occur in endurance events when the air temperature was between 10°C – 17.5°C
Due to the biomechanics of racewalking being associated with lower mechanical efficiency, unsurprisingly the 50km and 20km racewalking events were found to be where athletes were most at risk of heat exhaustion, followed by the marathon, the 5000m, and the 10,000m.
Mantzios et al. (2022) said their findings were indicative of the need to develop understandings of how, “the effects of the different weather parameters can be critical for athletes and coaches aiming to optimize running performance as well as for event organizers and officials wishing to mitigate the risk of heat illness to competitors”.
Of course as a ‘fast runner’ you are not immune from the risks posed by the weather and indeed Alonso et al. (2012) reported a heat exhaustion incidence of 3.3 per 1000 elite athletes at the World Athletics Championships.
If you are reading this and concerned about priming for peak performance during a freezing cold cross country race, you may consider either extending the duration of or indeed intensity of your RAMP warm up (Raise, Activate, Mobilize and Potentiate). This being said, most of you may be more concerned about ‘keeping cool’ during a Spring or Summer marathon, half or 10k. To try and respond to the weather in a proactive way is what Manztios et al. (2002) term a ‘heat mitigation strategy.’
Unless you are an elite athlete based at one of our illustrious high performance centres, its unlikely you will have access to a heat acclimation chamber. This being said there are at least 3 simpler interventions you could consider.
1. A regular sauna post training.
2. A daily post session bath.
Take the weather with you
The sauna will require gym membership which you may have for cross training purposes and in light of the recent rocketing of energy prices may prove a cheaper option than the luxury of a daily hot bath. This being said what Matzios et al. (2022) term your ‘heat acclimation status’ can be improved from one of both of the above interventions by gradually, progressively spending longer in the said sauna or bath tub.
A third intervention which is certainly less expensive is the wearing of extra clothing layers such as thermals or sweat suits during training. The latter is more of a social practice which one associates with the boxing community and for fighters trying to proverbially ‘make weight’ before a bout.
This intervention comes with a note of caution as it tends to be less intense and more aerobically dominant sessions which lend themselves to the wearing of additional clothing, which should be discarded for structured ‘sessions’ which one associates with more intense speed endurance work.
By understanding that the weather is not just something to endure but something which can be proactively managed by forethought, planning and habituation, you are beginning to sing to the tune of Crowded House whose hit exactly 30 years ago is a reminder to always take the ‘Weather With You’.
This leaves us with the following questions for self-reflection:
1. What weather conditions do I prefer to train and race in?
2. Why might it be appropriate to adjust the volume and / or intensity of a training session in extreme heat?
3. How can my nutritional and hydration strategies help minimise the risk of heat exhaustion during races?
4. When should I use heat acclimation strategies to prepare for a specific race in advance?
5. Which heat acclimation strategies are most convenient for my own athletic needs?
Alonso, et al. (2012) Determination of future prevention strategies in elite track and field: analysis of Daegu 2011 IAAF championships injuries and illnesses surveillance. Br J Sports Med. 2012;46(7):505–14
Mantzios et al. (2022) Effects of Weather Parameters on Endurance Running Performance: Discipline-specific Analysis of 1258 Races. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2022 Jan; 54(1): 153–161.
Matt Long was an England Team Coach @ The Commonwealth Games Development Camp and welcomes contact for coaching advice based on this article at firstname.lastname@example.org