How to Run in the Heat

5 lessons learned at the Boston Marathon
Ryan Hutton/Boston University News Service

A runner cools off at the 116th Boston Marathon, April 16, 2012.

“This is not a race. It’s an experience,” the Boston Athletics Association told the runners of the 2012 Boston Marathon just 24 hours before the gun. And an experience it promised to be, with temperature predictions soaring into the mid-80s.

Heat has historically been a major concern in marathons, and three recent high-profile deaths in the 2011 Chicago and Philadelphia marathons made race organizers über-cautious. Fearing that the heat would be too much for runners pushing their bodies to the limits of endurance, the BAA offered registered racers a deferment to 2013.

But Boston is one of the world’s most prestigious marathons—the only one that requires racers to qualify—and so it draws the most dedicated athletes in the sport. For months, I’d been training hard. I put in the long runs, worked on my strength training and even tapered my miles to the point that my legs were itching to bolt come Marathon Monday. I’d been visualizing myself breaking 3:30 to set a new PR. I wasn’t going to let go of that dream because of some unseasonably warm temps.

Instead, I adapted. Here’s what I learned along those hallowed (and hot!) 26.2 miles:

1. Dress for Success

I altered my clothing for the heat. Instead of a t-shirt, I wore a tank top. I topped it off with a white hat to shield my face from the sun and deflect its heat. Less sun exposure to my face protected me from undue fatigue.

2. It’s More than Just a Drink

To stay cool, I grabbed two cups of water at every aid station (there were 13 of them)—one that I immediately poured over my head and washed my face with, and one that I drank and/or poured over my body. Another way to stay cool is to carry a wet paper towel or a bag of ice. Luckily, many of the spectators in Boston gave runners wet paper towels and ice. I continually wiped my face and shoulders with the towel and the ice, and even stuck a few ice cubes in my hat.

3. Bottoms Up

I made sure to drink a little every mile, even if I wasn’t thirsty. I don’t normally drink a lot while running, but knew from past experience that staying hydrated is key. During my last hot weather race—the Vermont Marathon in 2011, where temps hovered around 80ºF—I didn’t alter my drinking habits, and I plodded through the second half of the race, dizzy and dehydrated. I had to walk when I didn’t feel well.

4. Lotions and Potions

I used stronger sunscreen and extra anti-chafe lotion. In most cases, SPF 30 will get you through a marathon. In hot, sunny races, using higher SPF will save your skin from burns. You are also more likely to get chafed when it’s hotter, because you are sweating more and may be wet from water (assuming you follow step #2, anyway). If Vaseline is passed out along the course, REAPPLY!

5. Be Honest with Yourself

Nobody wants to hear it, but it’s probably healthy to alter your expectations for the race. I did. My usual marathon goal is to run the second half faster than the first half. I knew that a negative split was unlikely given the conditions, and decided I would just be happy to finish. Turns out I was right—my second half was a full four minutes slower than the first half.

In the end, it was the hottest Boston Marathon in nearly three decades. Temps hit 87º Fahrenheit, around 4,300 runners stayed home rather than brave the heat, and more than 100 of those who did were hospitalized. With these simple adjustments, though, I managed to keep my mind on my goal and my body humming through the entire course, heat be damned.

When I rounded that final left onto Boylston Street, my watch read 3:28. I had two minutes to break my PR, and the blue arches of the finish line were in sight. One final push, and I crossed the finish line at 3:29:39. Now that was hot.