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The Psychology of Extreme Heat for Endurance Athletes

High heat might break your body, but it doesn't have to break your mind.

Key points

  • Extreme heat is a common challenge among endurance athletes such as runners, bikers, and swimmers.
  • Extreme heat can have a debilitating impact on the mind as well as the body (if you let it).
  • Your perceptions and emotions related to the heat will determine how heat affects you psychologically.
  • You can mitigate that effect by accepting the heat, acknowledging that you can't control it, staying positive, and seeing it as a challenge.
Gerd Altmann, Pixabay, used with permission
Source: Gerd Altmann, Pixabay, used with permission

I’m heading to Abu Dhabi in late November to compete in the World Standard-distance and Super-sprint Triathlon World Championships. And, yes, it’s going to be hot, very hot. The typical daily temperature in the U.A.E. in November is around 95 degrees and the water temperature is in the mid-80s (no wetsuits there!). Without a doubt, the single most talked about issue among TeamUSA members (aside from our race suits; inside joke!) is the heat.

For any endurance athlete who will be competing in a long event, whether a triathlon, ultra-run, or century bike ride (probably have to exclude Nordic skiers!), who is from the southern regions of the U.S., it’s just, as the saying goes, another day at the beach; their bodies have had the opportunity to adapt. But for Northerners like me, we might as well be stepping into a sauna. At the USAT National Championships in Milwaukee, people dropped like flies during the Olympic-distance race when the temperatures were in the high 80s and the humidity was 77%. Abu Dhabi is a bit less humid—around 65%—but it’s definitely not the more bearable dry heat found in Arizona or New Mexico.

Wherever you’re from, the heat in Abu Dhabi or any site with high temperatures is going to take its toll. Extreme heat places immense stress on the body, including increased core body temperature, dehydration, more rapid use of energy stores, decreased endurance, and, in rare cases, heat stroke and death.

But the heat should not be a deterrent. With proper strategies, the debilitating effects of heat on endurance performance can be mitigated. Techniques such as staying indoors or in the shade as much as possible and hydrating and fueling properly can all help. Nevertheless, the reality is that every competitor who wants to go the distance in extreme heat must make adjustments in their effort and race goals because extreme heat is unforgiving no matter who you are.

Though extreme heat most directly influences our bodies, it also can have a significant impact on our minds, adding psychological insult to physical injury. If you allow the heat to hurt your mind the way it hurts your body, you are setting yourself up for a truly discouraging, painful, and unrewarding race experience.

How does extreme heat affect your mind? It begins with your perceptions of the heat. Perceptions are the lenses through which we look at, interpret, and evaluate our world. And it is perceptions that shape the way we think, what emotions we experience, how we react to the heat, and, ultimately, how we perform.

If you associate negative thoughts with the heat (“This heat is so bad. I know I’m going to cramp.”), you create a defeatist mindset that will make the extreme heat far worse. Ruminating on the heat will also create doubts about your ability to handle it, cause you to worry, and produce unnecessary stress, all of which place additional demands on your body that burn fuel when it is most important to conserve energy.

Emotions can also play a big role in how heat affects your body and your performances. Because extreme heat is a threat to your physical integrity and your race goals, you may experience a veritable tsunami of negative emotion that can range from fear to frustration to anger to despair, none of which play nice with trying to go as fast as you can on race day. What can result as your race progresses and you begin to feel the effects of the extreme heat is a vicious cycle of physical, psychological, and emotional alarm that will not end well.

Here are some ways to lessen the impact of extreme heat and ensure that, though your body may struggle, your mind stays strong and continues to push your body to its reasonable limits given the temperature.

  • Accept that it’s going to be hot and that you can’t do anything to change the weather.
  • Recognize that everyone racing will be experiencing the same heat (I’ve never been in a race where it was only hot on me!).
  • Acknowledge that you can’t control the heat, so there is no point in dwelling on it or complaining about it (I call this “raging against the machine;” a truly futile endeavor).
  • As the saying goes, “control the controllables,” so figure out the best strategies for reducing the effect of extreme heat on you physically (I bought an ice vest that I plan to wear before my races in Abu Dhabi and will increase my hydration throughout my race days).
  • One of the hardest things to do, but which I really emphasize, is to not talk about the heat, except in the context of encouragement and practical tools to help combat the extreme heat. Talking about the heat in any sort of negative way will just bring you down psychologically and emotionally, which will then hurt you physically.
  • Think positively about the heat. I don’t mean that you should tell yourself things like “I’m loving this!” or “This is so fun!” when you clearly aren’t, and it clearly isn’t. Instead, say things to yourself and others that are both positive and realistic: “You’ve trained for this.” “Make the necessary adjustments.” “Keep hydrating.” “Dig deep and finish strong.”
  • See the extreme heat as a challenge to conquer (“Bring it on!”) rather than a threat to avoid (“Oh no!"). Isn’t surmounting adversity a big reason why we do endurance sports in the first place?

In sum, there is no way to know whether the extreme heat will beat you on race day. But you can be sure that you don’t beat yourself because you’re freaking out about heat. As long as your mind stays on your side, you give yourself a chance to have a great race, feel the immense satisfaction of overcoming an incredible challenge, and even achieve the race result that you are aiming for.

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