By Ashley Lauretta
The summer months are here in full force and with higher temperatures comes a greater chance of higher humidity. During this time of year many parts of the country are referred to as “sticky” because of the increased amounts of water vapor in the air, often imitating a sauna. For many runners, training doesn’t stop because of the weather—especially with fall racing season quickly approaching—so adjustments must be made and the show must go on.
Runners who do train consistently throughout the summer see benefits come fall and this training tactic is one that delivers long-term results versus immediate benefits. This outcome brings to mind another training method—altitude training—where runners spend weeks in altitudes above 5,000 feet in order to train their body to operate on less oxygen. Though this is mainly employed by professional runners, training camps frequently give everyday runners the opportunity to take advantage of these gains, as well.
With both methods delivering long-term results and extreme physiological effects on the body, can they be considered equivalent? Unfortunately, it isn’t a yes or no answer but a yes and no one—and two coaches are here to explain why.
Training In The Sticky Summer Months
The biggest annoyance—and downside—of running during the summer is the increased amount of sweat produced. Though it is your body’s way of trying to cool itself, the more moisture in the air, the less effective the process is.
Though our bodies are comfortable in some humidity, especially indoors, when this humidity is outdoors, it can make the temperatures feel a few degrees hotter than what the forecast reads. ‘A few degrees’ may not sound like a lot, but when temperatures are already over one hundred degrees, any jump in degrees is noticeable—and increases the chance of dehydration and heat-related illnesses.
When training in these conditions, your body has to adapt to the environmental stressors. With consistent training over the summer months, most runners experience benefits that are most noticeable as temperatures drop and fall racing season begins.
“Research has found that there are many positive adaptations that the body makes in response to the heat, including increased sweat rate, increased blood plasma volume, reduced overall core temperature, increased oxygen delivery to the muscles, reduced blood lactate and increased skeletal muscle force,” explains running coach Angie Spencer, RN, owner at Marathon Training Academy. “All of these adaptations work together to make your body more efficient at cooling, which can pay off when temperatures start cooling down.”
Running in heat and humidity does lead runners to experience fatigue much sooner. However, runners who are able to control their heart rate and effectively fuel by replenishing electrolytes and sodium lost due to the increase in sweat will experience a boost in strength and endurance that will be felt for months if training remains consistent.
What Happens To Your Body At Altitude
Altitude training is a popular training method among professional and elite runners and for good reason. The lack of oxygen at higher elevations forces your heart and lungs to work harder, and despite the snowfall often experienced at these elevations about 5,000 feet during the winter months, it can be done almost any time during the year.
“The main effect altitude training has on athletes is due to the lack of oxygen,” notes Greg Reverdiau, founder of High-Altitude Training Institute. “One of the ways our body acclimates to the lack of oxygen is by generating additional red blood cells, which are the cells responsible for carrying the oxygen throughout our body. When going to lower elevations, the additional red blood cells help your body perform better since it carries more oxygen to your muscles.”
Reverdiau explains that there is no ‘magic number’ of days or weeks that you should train at altitude, though only a few weeks can be extremely beneficial. However, this can be difficult for everyday athletes who don’t live at altitude, simply because of the time commitment required to experience sufficient benefits of the training.
“According to Running Times [shuttered in 2015], 95 percent of all medalists at the world championships and the Olympic Games since 1968 have either lived or trained at altitude,” adds Spencer. “Unfortunately, several studies say that it takes between 21 to 28 days at altitude for the body to make adaptations. Many non-elite athletes simply don’t have the time or resources to train this long at altitude.”
Additionally, just as with running in higher temperatures, the body has to adapt to the lack of oxygen at altitude and hydration must be increased to account for it. Training volume should be decreased during the first week in order for your body to safely adjust to the increased effort placed on your heart and lungs.
The Bottom Line
Though both humidity and altitude strain your body to ultimately increase your performance, their effects on your body are not exactly equivalent to one another. Special considerations and strategies should be made for training in both types of conditions, however, the logistics of both mean that training in humidity may be more accessible to a greater number of everyday athletes.
“The good news for those who don’t train at altitude is that research shows that heat training may be even more beneficial,” assures Spencer. “The body is able to adapt to heat more quickly than altitude and heat training can make you better able to perform well in a variety of temperatures. And if you’re patient with the process, train consistently, and make recovery a priority it will pay big dividends.”
Reverdiau does make special note that most pro athletes train in high-altitude meccas such as Flagstaff or Boulder and not in Miami or Orlando, known for their high-humidity, mostly due to the physiological reaction of the body. However, as one result to both types of training involves more oxygen delivered to the muscles, he does concede that results can be seen from both.
Ashley Lauretta is a journalist based in Austin, Texas. She is the freelance social editor at Competitor and assistant editor at LAVA. Her work appears in The Atlantic, ELLE, GOOD Sports, espnW, VICE Sports, Health, Men’s Journaland more. Find her on Twitter at @ashley_lauretta.