Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Saturday, July 07, 2018

Martial Arts Training in the Summer Heat

Below is an excerpt from a post at Kung Fu Tea regarding training in the summer heat. The full post may be read here.

Late last year I published another short essay on training in extreme weather.  At the time we were concerned with the costs and benefits of working out in the snow.  Ultimately we concluded that there are substantial health benefits to be gained if certain precautions are taken.  So what about training in the summer heat?  Is there any gain to be had from all the pain?  Should we all head out for a run in the heat of the day?

As always, there are certain dangers that one needs to be aware of, and you should never undertake any serious exercise program without consulting your doctor.  That is always good advice, but it turns out to be especially true when discussing physical training in extreme weather as that may stress your heart or lungs. 

So lets start with the bad stuff.  What could possibly go wrong? Quite a bit as it turns out.

Dehydration is probably the most common issue to arise.  One needs to be well hydrated before starting any outdoors activity, and in extreme heat it is important to stop and take regular water breaks as you may already be well on the way to dehydration before you feel thirsty.  Common symptoms of dehydration include muscle cramps (like the ones that I experienced in Japan).  Also note that children are more susceptible to dehydration than adults.  While I am generally all for “traditional training,” I would approach with caution any practice that restricted your access to water while exercising in extreme heat.

More serious is heat exhaustion. Watch out for feelings of lightheadedness, nausea, vomiting, physical weakness, excessive sweating or cold, clammy skin.  During a bout of heat exhaustion one’s internal body temperature may rise as high as 104 degrees.  If you continue to exert yourself beyond this point bad things tend to happen.

The most common of those would be heatstroke.  This is a life and death condition that occurs when an individual’s core body temperature moves above 104 degrees.  The skin may be red and dry from lack of sweat.  Heart beats per minute and respiration rates shoot up as the body seeks to cool itself.  Lastly, confusion, irritability, visual problems and dizziness may be followed by loss of consciousness, organ failure and death.

  • Muscle cramps
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Excessive sweating
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Confusion
  • Irritability
  • Low blood pressure
  • Increased heart rate (beyond what one expects during exercise)
  • Visual problems

If you begin to develop any of these symptoms, stop, move to a cool place, get hydrated and let your body temperature return to normal.  Remove any excessive clothing or bulky training gear. Individuals suffering from heat exhaustion will need to seek medical help if their body temperature remains elevated.  Needless to the say, the same goes for anyone with signs of heatstroke.

That is basically everyone’s official list of things to watch for in extreme heat training.  I would like to add a couple of additional items based on my own observations.  To begin with, most of us only experience exercise under these conditions when we are outdoors. Always wear waterproof sunblock whenever you are training outside.  Nothing ends an outdoor exercise program quite as quickly as a bad case of sunburn on the first or second day.

Second, consider all of the things that want to eat you.  In central New York that mostly means mosquitoes and ticks.  I suppose if I was in Florida the list would be different.

Mosquitos are a nuisance that can be taken care of by finding sweat resistant bug spray.  Ticks, however, are a more serious matter.  As carriers of Lyme disease they are becoming a serious public health issue where I live, particularly for individuals who may include hiking or trail running in their workout.  And lets face it, there is nothing more epic than doing your forms after hiking or jogging to the top of a cliff.  Always check for ticks at the end of any instagram worthy adventure, and consider wearing long, breathable, workout pants if you know that you will be hiking in an area where they are common.

With all of that on the table, is there actually any reason to put up with the risks of training in the summer heat when most of us have access to temperature controlled spaces? Absolutely. There is a small body of clinical evidence that suggests individuals who properly acclimatize and train in the heat for short periods of time (typically a couple of weeks) see greater performance gains than athletes doing identical workouts in cool spaces.

The paper that is most often cited in these discussions is a 2010 experiment conducted by Santiago Lorenzo at the University of Oregon.  After carefully observing the baseline performance levels of 20 elite cyclists, 12 were assigned a workout schedule to be conducted in a temperature controlled room set at 100 degrees, while the remaining control group did the exact same workout in a room cooled to a chilly 55 degrees.  At the end of a 10 day training period the performance of the two groups of cyclists was once again observed and measured.  

The results were striking.  The control group showed no improvement, most likely because they were all elite athletes near the top of their game to begin with.  But the group who had worked out in extreme heat saw a 6% performance boost.  Researchers hypothesized that this was a result of increases in their VO2Max (the total amount of oxygen your body can use during an intense effort) and their total blood volumes.  By producing more blood the body was able to continue to cool itself efficiently without robbing the large muscle groups of the oxygen that they needed to function (which is a contributing factor to the cramps discussed above).

As with all good things, moderation is the key.  One must be in excellent shape to carry out this sort of regime while locked in a 100 degree room.  Most of us will be working our way up through the 80s and 90s, slowly acclimating to the rising temperatures, and remembering to pay close attention to the humidity.  High levels of humidity interfere with the body’s ability to dissipate heat through sweat and that increases the likelihood of heat exhaustion or heat stroke.

Yet from an athletic standpoint, the interesting thing is how quickly the body can adapt to these new conditions.  It wasn’t necessary for these athletes to train in the extreme heat for months.  They saw marked improvements in less than two weeks time.

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