Staying Cool In a Triathlon

It always amazed me that even though most longer foot races such as marathons and half marathons are only really done in the Spring and Fall, plenty of triathletes are running the distance during the Summer. On top of that, usually at the peak of the sun and heat for the day.

Heat management and fluid management is a crucial component in successful racing. While so far in my races I have never DNF’ed, there have been a few times that facing the heat on a second lap run leg was making me waver. Here are a few things I have learned to do in order to stay cool and keep the finish streak alive.

First, although this article won’t be about fluid management or intake, it is worth mentioning that cold liquids can help to keep you cool. For any race over an Olympic distance, I have found that grabbing a water AND a sports drink at each aid area is key. Why both? The water is for pouring over your head, the sports drink is for the electrolytes, and carbs. Even if you only sip, take them both because you don’t get that station back.

If the race has ice, I will skip the water and take a cup of ice. I may put a piece in my mouth, but normally I will dump the cup into my hat, and run with it melting and dripping down my body cooling me off. Usually this will last until the next aid station with ice (many times every other), and I can reload. I have done some exceptionally hot (Miami, New Hampshire, Syracuse) half-Iron races that would have been nearly impossible without this approach. The same holds true for full distance racing.

What type of hat? Mountain Hardware makes a fantastic long brimmed, comfortable and easy to wash hat that I will use for races. Some of the race swag hats are also pretty good for keeping cool as they are normally white and thin, but won’t hold as much ice.

At some races sponges are a good alternative to ice, and putting them in a hat or in your jersey will help keep you cool as well. These tend to run out though and may not be there for the second lap or later racers.

Another method I am a growing fond of is the cooling neck gaiter. These also serve to keep the sun off of the neck, which can be a saving grace when you try to sleep that night. In my last Ironman, someone on the run informed me of my ‘beet red’ neck. I thanked him for his concern, let him know it was generations of fair skin in the making, and left him staring at the red blur pulling away in a painfully fatigued gait. So my recommendation on this is a Mission Cooling Gaiter.

A few other things that can help marginally are to unzip your jersey to within the rule limit. Normally this is about to the diaphragm. It doesn’t help much but it is something. Also when it is very hot I will try to pull back slightly on the sections of the course with no shade cover and push the areas that are protected. This may not seem meaningful, but it can help avoid the red line. Sometimes, once you overheat, there is no coming back.

Some things to avoid in the heat. Don’t pour the Gatorade over your head. Sticky. Also consider avoiding the sprinklers and hoses that some people put out. I have made the mistake of running through these to cool off, only to find my shoes soaked, heavy, and blister machines from then on. This is a judgement call though. If the heat is too much, it is better to take the wet shoes on but still finish the race.

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