Turning Up the Heat: Coping With the Mental Strain of Racing in Heat

In addition to physically training for the heat, you can also prepare for the mental challenges of running in it.

By on May 13, 2022 | Comments

This week, spring has turned summer-like as a May heatwave has spread across much of North America.

Of course, this comes at just the right time for many athletes preparing for hot summer races in much of the Northern Hemisphere. And it also once again brings to mind the importance of early-season heat training for those wanting to have successful races at such places as the Western States 100, Badwater 135 Mile, Vermont 100 Mile, and Wasatch Front 100 Mile.

David Eadie at the 2012 Badwater Ultramarathon.

David Eadie 100 miles into the 2012 Badwater 135 Mile in scorching conditions. Photo: Ian Sharman

While much attention is paid to the importance of the physical training necessary to be prepared for hot conditions, I believe it is equally important to be mentally trained for the heat, as extreme temperatures can wear down the mind even more than the body. Over the years, I have urged runners to be thoughtful and intentional when it comes to training the mind for hot summer ultras.

While in the midst of the physical training for heat in the sauna or hot tub, it’s important for athletes to pay attention to what prolonged exposure does to their general outlook and attitude. Many runners with whom I’ve spoken talk about the lethargy that accompanies exposure to heat, and that lethargy can spread to the mind in a way that promotes indifference and apathy.

I have seen more than a few runners in hot summer 100 milers simply give up and drop out because they just didn’t want to be out there anymore. Preparing the mind for the inevitable pessimism and negativity that creeps in when exposed to relentless heat is essential for success.

Lluis Ruiz of Spain cools off at the Trient aid station at the 2019 UTMB.

Lluis Ruiz cools during the 2019 UTMB, which offered runners hot conditions. Photo: iRunFar/Kirsten Kortebein

In this context, I urge runners, while training in and for the heat, to pay close attention to their moods and work to reframe their mindsets toward embracing and possibly even enjoying the heat. Then, on race day, at the emergence of the inevitable birds of worry that the heat inspires, they will be prepared to better accept their situation with optimism and positivity. I’d like to share a personal story from my past to illustrate this point.

The 2006 Western States 100 was the fifth hottest race in the history of the event with a high of 101 degrees Fahrenheit at the finish line in Auburn, California, and a finishing rate of 52%. It also ranks as the fourth most difficult year in the history of the race, with an average finishing time of 27 hours and 31 minutes.

I was in the race that year and, due to the heat, I started out very conservatively. By the time I arrived at the Last Chance aid station at mile 43, I was about 45 minutes behind my planned pace and feeling pretty discouraged. I spent about 10 minutes in the aid station fueling up and cooling off with an ice bucket before heading off into the canyons.

Tyler Green - 2021 Western States 100 - Rucky Chucky

Tyler Green cooling off in the American River at mile 78, on his way to taking second at the 2021 Western States 100, another very warm year. Photo: iRunFar/Bryon Powell

About half a mile past the aid station, I heard a familiar voice coming from the woods to my left.

“Hey AJ, wait up, it’s me, Tommy.” Coming out from the bushes after a brief pit stop was my good friend and long-time running mentor Tom [Tommy] Nielsen. “Dang, it’s hot out here,” Tommy continued, once he caught up with me.

“Yeah,” I said. “I’m already 45 minutes behind schedule.”

“Well, if it means anything to you,” Tommy replied, “I threw out my split card two hours ago. How about we just run these next few miles together.”

And, for the next six hours, Tommy and I ran together, virtually stride for stride through the heat of the day. Eventually, he pulled ahead of me going on to a fourth-place finish while I finished in seventh. Looking back on that day, Tommy’s attitude when we met up just out of Last Chance proved to be a key factor in me being able to finish at all. When I chatted with Tommy about it after the race, he was matter of fact about the whole thing.

“I just figured there was nothing I could do about the heat and everyone else had to deal with it also, so I decided I would just stay positive and it worked.”

The lesson here is that while many of us, appropriately so, spend much time training our bodies, fewer of us focus on training the mind. And, when it comes to heat training, it’s important for all of us to take a page out of Tom Nielsen’s book, because sometimes in those moments of great adversity, attitude really is everything.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

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Call for Comments

  • Do you have a story from racing in the heat when it seemed like the heat was getting to both your body and your mind?
  • If so, how did you cope and what happened next?
Tom Nielsen and Tracy Moore - 2006 Western States 100

Tom Nielsen (right) and Tracy Moore during the 2006 Western States 100. Photo: Luis Escobar

Andy Jones-Wilkins

Andy Jones-Wilkins is an educator by day and has been the author of AJW’s Taproom at iRunFar for over 11 years. A veteran of over 190 ultramarathons, including 38 100-mile races, Andy has run some of the most well-known ultras in the United States. Of particular note are his 10 finishes at the Western States 100, which included 7 times finishing in the top 10. Andy lives with his wife, Shelly, and Josey, the dog, and is the proud parent of three sons, Carson, Logan, and Tully.