PHOENIX — In the 2017 version of the Black Canyon Ultras 100-kilometer race, which began in Mayer and finished in New River, 74 participants — nearly a quarter of the competitors — did not finish the race. Some dropped out before even starting and some attempted to complete the race but could not.
“I was running and saw big guys under the trees completely passed out with someone attending to them with a friend or a medical staff,” said Magdalena Romanska, an ultra marathon runner, certified life and wellness coach and personal trainer. “They actually ran out of cars to bring us back from the finish because they were taking (people) to hospitals.”
And that was in February when the weather was chilly — 45 degrees at the start. That didn’t discourage Romanska, who is among a growing group of athletes who pay attention to weather for training and is committed to working out in extreme summer heat. She strongly believes in a benefit.
Scientific data backs up her claim. A 2010 study by human physiology researchers at the University of Oregon found performance increases of approximately seven percent by athletes participating in a heat acclimation program.
Others point to increased mental toughness as an advantage of training in intense heat.
Romanska moved to Arizona about seven years ago from Montreal and continued her passion for running in marathons and ultramarathons in a climate she had briefly experienced in the past.
In order to continue running and training in the desert, the Sedona resident acclimated to the summer heat by beginning her run at noon and ending at around 3 p.m. so her body could adjust.
Although Sedona is often cooler than the Valley, the average high in the city in late June and early July of 2017 often surpassed 100 degrees.
“When it was the first heat and summer of the year, after we came, that’s when I really decided what I have to push and do,” Romanska said. “Ideally, here you want to train here at 5, 6 or 7 in the morning, but I would force myself to do it at 11 or noon, maybe 1 p.m.”
Recent studies have been conducted to see if heat acclimation can improve an athlete’s performance in the way altitude training does. Many suggest it can.
“In addition to an increased rate of perspiration, training in the heat can increase an athlete’s blood plasma volume (which leads to better cardiovascular fitness), reduce overall core temperature, increase skeletal muscle force, and, counterintuitively, make a person train better in cold temperatures,” said Santiago Lorenzo, a professor of physiology at Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine and a former decathlete at the University of Oregon.
“In fact, heat acclimation may actually be more beneficial than altitude training in eliciting positive physiological adaptations.”
Before the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, Oregon professor Christopher Minson trained Olympic hopeful and marathon runner Dathan Ritzenhein. Minson, a thermoregulation physicist, implemented heat acclimation training into Ritzenhein’s training regimen to help him adjust to the hot climate he would encounter in Beijing.
Ritzenhein finished an impressive ninth in the Olympic marathon, the highest U.S. finisher that summer.
After the Summer Games, Minson and three other Oregon faculty members conducted a study that would analyze this idea: Heat acclimation can improve performance.
“Heat acclimation provides more substantial environmental specific improvements in aerobic performance than altitude acclimation,” Minson said. “And in contrast to the live low, train high philosophy, we more quickly adapt to heat stress than we do to (oxygen deficiency). In other words, heat training not only does a better job at increasing (the maximum amount of oxygen that an individual can utilize during intense exercise) than altitude, but it also makes athletes better at withstanding a wider range of temperatures.”
The study was centered around 12 cyclists who spent 10 days training in a heat acclimation program. The time trials for the cyclists show improvement from their previous times. The study focused on the increase in cardiac performance and the expansion of plasma. Having a high blood volume reduces heart rate during exercise and sends more oxygen to muscles. The study was conducted in an Oregon lab. The climatic chamber was set at 100 degrees for heat testing and 55 degrees for cooler analysis. Humidity was consistent.
Minson and his colleagues saw plasma volume among test subjects increase from 200 to 300 milliliters, suggesting that heat acclimation can improve an athlete’s performance.
“We try and add in the heat stress gradually,” Minson said. “We have them start at certain temperatures in the rooms in our environment chamber and we’ll do a lot of work rest cycles.”
Minson believes that heat acclimation can train the human body to adapt to hot conditions while still functioning at a high level.
“It’s amazing how well humans can adapt to the heat,” he said. “We have an amazing ability, relative to most animals, to exercise and perform long distance in the heat.”
Dr. Siddhartha Angadi, an assistant professor at Arizona State’s School of Nutrition and Health Promotion at Arizona State, said that heat acclimation is better served for those in competition and not the everyday person.
“Heat functions as a massive stress test on the system,” Angadi said. “Once the temp gets above about 98 degrees Fahrenheit, we really depend upon sweat evaporating off our body.”
Heat acclimation can make a difference for Olympic-caliber athletes, Minson said.
“People want to see a four, five, six, seven or eight percent increases and say that’s really significant but the truth is a one or two percent increase in performance — in a high level athlete — is a huge improvement,” he said “That could be the difference between winning a gold metal and not being anywhere near the podium at that kind of level.”
Even though training in triple-digit weather has benefits, it does not allow everyone to perform at their best. There is an art to the training and the guidance of experts is key.
When people are in the heat and running in the heat all the time they’re running slower,” Minson said: “You simply cannot run as fast in 110 degree heat as you can if it were 82.”
Doing intense workouts outside, while listening to your body, will be beneficial when leaving the desert for competitions.
“Train your running, train you power-walking and also train in the heat because you’ll feel that much better when you don’t (run or power walk) in the heat,” Romanska said.
Coming from Britain, Phoenix Rising FC defender Peter Ramage has not experienced heat in the way he has this professional soccer season. The Rising have made changes to their practice schedule so that players are more adapted come game time. Despite the inconvenience and hardships the heat can bring, Ramage said it is an advantage for the club.
“When we do go away and it’s a little bit cooler, we are … better equipped for it. When we go to places with higher altitude, again the heat comes into play because it’s hard to get your breath in temperatures like this, so in the altitude … we are able to cope with that too,” Ramage said.
Training in the heat can give athletes an advantage but at the end of the day, the mental side is still a factor.
“I think if you are to have extreme weather — cold or warm — it toughens you up mentally so that you can handle anything that is thrown at you,” said Shannon Murphy, an Arizona resident and recreational runner.
“It’s a matter of really listening to your body. That’s the key thing as an athlete, regardless of your level.”