It’s tempting to take your exercise indoors when the sun is blazing and the heat is stifling, but heat training can be a highly beneficial addition to your workout routine.
Dr. Rand McClain, founder of Performance Sports & Rejuvenation Medicine and Chief Medical Officer of Live Cell Research, recommends heat training for what is known as the “training effect.” As he explains, training under an added stressor like heat “challenges the body in such a way that it will respond and adapt by preparing the body for the stressor in a better way should the same stressor be incurred again.”
For most of us, there's no doubt that training in the heat is far more challenging than hanging out in the air conditioning. But it's the benefits that come with forcing your body to compensate more that may make the challenge worth it. When heat is added to the equation, the body is forced to kick it into high gear. As Dr. McClain notes, heat "challenges the body to make more plasma and more oxygen carrying capacity."
Amazingly, your VO2 max (how much oxygen you're taking in) and your power output (how hard you're working) have both been shown to increase as a result of heat training. One study of trained cyclists found that heat training increased VO2 max by eight percent and power output by five percent. Cyclists who trained in the heat were also eight percent faster in time trials. Unsurprisingly, you also become a lot tougher mentally, too. Once you've done a workout in the heat, doing the same thing in temperate weather conditions is going to feel a lot easier!
Of course, incorporating an additional stressor like heat requires a healthy amount of precaution.
How to (Safely!) Add Heat Training to Your Workout Routine
1. Add heat training to a workout you know you can already successfully do in temperate conditions.
Heat is one of many additional stressors you can add to a workout – like heavier weights or faster intervals – to increase your load and improve your fitness level. As Dr. McClain explains, “if one can run five consecutive 7-minute miles on an average 50 degree day in spring in Canada, then one can try the same workout in summer in 85 degree heat, increasing the challenge to the body’s physiology and thereby leveraging the training effect without changing any other workout elements.” When you're just getting started, add heat to a workout you've already done in temperate conditions. Heat is enough of a stressor on its own that you don't need to add any other complications.
2. Don’t over-train yourself – start by tweaking one workout a week.
While a challenge can be exciting, with a stressor like heat, you want to start slow. McClain recommends mixing up your workout once a week with heat. This could be as simple as running outdoors rather than indoors or giving Bikram yoga a shot. Of course, “heat” is relative – if you’re living in the tropics, you’re used to a different definition of heat than someone in the north!
3. Hydrate – with electrolytes.
Of course, drinking water is important. But as Dr. McClain is quick to note, “hydration is not just about drinking water in an attempt to top off the tank. One must have the appropriate amount of minerals in the cells so that water ingested will go to and remain where it needs to go – in the cells.” In other words, you need electrolytes. Electrolytes, or ionized minerals, get you hydrated and keep you hydrated. You can stock up on electrolytes by eating lots of vegetables and grains pre-workout or, as McClain notes, you can take them in pill form, without the added sugar found in most sports drinks.
4. Be cautious and take time to recover.
Regardless of where you’re from or how in shape you are, “adding stress, such as heat, needs to be balanced with rest and nutrition in order to make fitness progress,” McClain says. Heat training should be a bonus challenge for your workout, not your new normal.
[Editor's Note: Always make sure to consult with your doctor before making any major changes to your workout routine.]
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