Take a Mindful Approach to Running in the Heat

A pair of runners sweat during a summer workout

While many runners complain about running through the winter months, summer training comes with its own set of challenges. The biggest of them is heat and the accompanying dehydration. To be sure, research shows that even a a small decline in hydration status can decrease running performance.

New research, however, suggests that even the perception of warmth during exercise can also have a detrimental effect on performance, even when core body temperature and heart rate aren’t affected.

One major observation that comes from this research is that an athlete can see a dip in performance when they obsess about feeling hot during exercise, despite physiological markers remaining constant. For instance, a runner begins to sweat and feel warm the first mile of a race, which causes them to brace for what they perceive as inevitable suffering, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

While it is important to pay attention to the heat and your hydration status to stay safe outside, learning to subvert the catastrophic thinking that accompanies the discomfort of running in the heat can help a runner continue to push when all systems are go. So what’s the best way to do this? Mindfulness offers a perfect tool in these situations.

A runner rests on a track during a warm summer workout

First and foremost, mindfulness can help you untangle the inherent discomfort that comes with running in the heat from dangerous warning signs associated with conditions like heat exhaustion.

At its core, mindfulness trains you to tune into the moment-to-moment experience of a run. I often suggest easing into a mindful running practice by spending a few minutes doing a head-to-toe body scan as you run, taking note of how each region of the body is feeling in that moment.

Remain objective as you scan, and don’t obsess over any one part—just notice it, and move on to the next part of the body. Every time your mind wanders, bring it back to wherever you left off in your scan.

The next step is to determine whether any action needs to be taken. For instance, if you observe that your legs are feeling a bit sluggish, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Have my legs felt this way before?
  • Could this be related to the heat?
  • Could this be related to other activities?
  • Is it a more acute discomfort or simply a bit of fatigue?

Answering questions like these can shift the discomfort from a physical and emotional experience to a more intellectual one. By examining the sensations associated with running in the heat with curiosity, you can objectively devise a plan to respond, if one is necessary.

If you determine what you’re feeling is simply part of the inherent discomfort of running in the heat, not anything potentially dangerous, the tenets of mindful running call you to simply take note of it and accept its existence.

While many runners believe that distraction is the best way to subvert suffering on the run, the research suggests that the more you resist a feeling, thought or sensation, ironically, the more you end up caught up in it. This denial of suffering will only sap mental and physical energy when you’re already uncomfortable.

Mindfulness trains you to be aware of the times when your body is putting out important warning signals demanding you to slow down or stop, but also to avoid resisting suffering and backing off when you could continue to push. What’s more, it can keep you from obsessing over minor issues that have a way of killing the enjoyment of running this time of year.

Next time you feel the sun pounding down on your shoulders and sweat forming on your brow, take note of it, decide if any particular action is necessary, and then return to the moment-to-moment experience of your summer run. You may just find that the heat isn’t as scorching as your mind initially made you think.

By Mackenzie L. Havey. Mackenzie Havey (née Lobby) writes about endurance sports, mind/body health and wellness, and adventure travel. Her work has appeared in Runner’s World, SELF, Triathlete, TheAtlantic.com, ESPN.com, the Star Tribune and elsewhere. In addition to completing 14 marathons and an Ironman triathlon, she is a USA Track & Field-certified coach, an instructor in the Physical Activity Program in the School of Kinesiology at the University of Minnesota, and has done training in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction.

Keep Reading