When the Heat is on!

Michelle Maxwell Ironman, Marathon, Nutrition, Psychology, Racing, Running

Chris Maxwell, our head Triathlon coach and long course expert, talks about his recent London Marathon experience in incredibly tough conditions and how to overcome racing in the heat and circumstances out of your control.

I enthusiastically looked forward to my first London marathon in 18 years, in the knowledge my run form and fitness was probably the best it had been for many years. Following a 2:58 Brighton marathon last year, while suffering from sciatica problems and hindered by un-seasonally hot conditions, I was aiming for something close to 2:50 this year!

As with any A-race, you start to get obsessed by weather forecasts. And for the second year running, it looked like I would be running 26.2 miles in record April heat! There is of course nothing you can do about the weather, as many will know from a disrupted race calendar this year. But you can prepare for what mother-nature throws at you, even if only with a short warning.

There is a lot of evidence and examples of how athletes (especially professional athletes) can prepare for hot conditions, with examples of training in climate chambers, home-made ‘hot rooms’ and wearing extra clothing. All of this is fine if you know in advance: running in 26oC heat in April following a winter of snow wasn’t really on the radar!

I do not profess to be an expert in running in heat, genetically pre-disposed to coping with such conditions, or indeed think that I hit top form in the conditions this year. But I will offer my thoughts on how I coped with the hottest London marathon on record:-

1.Pre-race considerations –

  • With around a week to go, the forecast was indicating a sudden rise in temperature. So while this was not much warning, I did use the hotter mid-week days to try to acclimatise as much as possible, by training at lunchtime for example.
  • Maintaining hydration and electrolytes in the lead up (week before) I think is key. I found drinking Tailwind® 3 days before not only helped with consuming carbohydrates without the ‘bulk’ of food, but also kept me topped up with electrolytes.
  • Hydration and staying out of the heat on the day before and in the hours leading up to the race is also vital. I was fortunate to be in the good for age start area where there was a marquee – I stayed inside in the shade for as much as possible. It was amazing to see so many faster experienced athletes sitting out in the sun!
  • Wearing a cap works for me. Some say it makes them hotter. I think it helps shade the face. Finding shaded areas on the course is also worth considering (but easier said than done in the packed streets of London!

2. Adjusting your expectations –

Pace and heart rate are so important for a marathon, and even more so when it’s hot. Getting ahead of your plan in those early miles is so easy when you’re feeling good and the atmosphere is buzzing – but this will seriously come back to bite you later on! When it’s hot you should consider reviewing your pacing plan before the start and regularly during the race. For me this year, I decided to start as planned and re-assess as I went. 6:30s per mile generally felt OK, although with all the dodging of runners (the Good for Age start seemed to be slow to get away compared to the others, so I found myself constantly overtaking for 12 miles) my watch readings and official distance seemed to be diverging all the time. At around 7 miles I ‘bumped into’ club-mate Brian Jeffery – he said he had reassessed his pacing from 6:25s to 6:45s based on how he was feeling. This made my very worried whether to push on with my pacing, especially as I had noticed my heart rate was higher than normal at the speed. I made a decision to go with it for now, wished Brian luck and I said he might see me again later!

3. Hydration –

Right from the first mile I was taking water – taking a good mouthful to drink, the rest poured over my head and neck. I never missed a water station (sorry that some water stations ran dry for runners later in the day). As a side note, be very careful around water stations – staying alert to sudden movements from other runners and the sea of bottles on the floor is a real challenge during the big races like London! I also kept to my nutrition plan of taking High 5 gels every 3 miles, and then every 2 miles after 18…I’m a ‘carb muncher’!

4. Stay in Control –

I hit half way in 1:26:30, and suddenly felt the best I had done all day. My mind said – right let’s negative split!! The crowds were absolutely immense and with more space on the road now I really was enjoying it. I knew where Michelle and the family would be – around 19 miles – and was desperate to see them to help push me on (the crowds were so deep I’d not seen them at the planned 6-7 miles). It was great when I finally clocked them – and dashed over to give Sophie a quick high five! Who says I don’t acknowledge the support!

5. Hurt Locker Miles –

By 20 miles it was suddenly a different story! I could start feeling my quads going into spasm/feeling “solid”. Then my calves joined in with some short sharp pains. It’s always a really difficult decision at this point – do I try to stay on pace and risk a complete breakdown? Or do I play it safe and back off? I took on some Lucozade sport drink to try to redress the electrolyte balance. For an Ironman marathon I carry Tailwind® with me, which I think really helps – but for a standalone marathon you really have to rely on the on-course drinks (unless you are Mo and even he struggles!). The Lucozade seemed to at least keep major cramping at bay. I pushed on – but now at a slower pace 7min miling (legs wouldn’t go any faster). It all starts to get a bit fuzzy from thereon. I remember the immense crowd, and Pip at the water station (although not sure I really acknowledged her!). I remember looking at my watch starting to calculate my finish time, and starting to wonder if a sub-3 was at risk. I remember thinking of Michelle’s Manchester times for her last miles and used them to will myself on! In the last mile I noticed my watch say 26.2 miles…but there was still 800m to go! Ummm this might be a bit close I thought, time to dig deep. 400m to go – I’m going to make it under 3 hours –time to ‘enjoy’ the run-in?!

When I saw the carnage around me, and effect on everyone’s performance (and health) I am very happy and thankful with what I achieved. It is very scary to see first-hand how the heat and dehydration can very quickly cause very serious health effects. Just a small example – I noticed that my average heart rate for the race was over 5bpm higher than I would normally expect, indicating the strain on the body.

It’s a real shame that so many people’s aims were crushed by the heat.  But what happened to Matt Campbell of course puts everything into perspective. My thoughts are with his family and friends.

For those that survived the heat, we will all be back to challenge ourselves again – and I think we will all learn from this experience.