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Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Cycling When I'm In Heat... and Humidity.

Cooling and Refueling

It is mid-summer in Taiwan, which means the weather is both hot and humid.

I make no secret of my love for long, long, long, endurance rides and in pushing myself to the limits of fatigue. The way this year seems to be shaping up, I should be able to put together several rides over 160km. Lately I have been experimenting with rides in the 200km range with plans for longer as my strength and fitness increase.

The question I get asked a lot by cyclists and non-cyclists alike is how I can possibly put in that type of distance in such extreme temperatures in excess of 35C/95F. My usual response is, "With awesome 70's tan lines."

I really don't mind riding in the heat as much as I mind riding against the wind. Still, hot weather riding requires proper training and preparation to be done safely. The greatest danger to high temperature athletes are the effects of heat exhaustion and heatstroke. If left untreated these conditions could be fatal to an endurance athlete.

It is common to hear people scream heat stroke whenever they feel a little discomfort out in the sun, but actually heat stroke or hyperthermia is a term used to describe the body's inability to cool itself when the natural temperature controls, such as perspiration, shut down. What a person may be feeling are the minor effects of heat exhaustion.

Heat Exhaustion:

Heat exhaustion is the result of dehydration. The body has exhausted its supply of H2O reserved for sweating and can not allocate any more water for temperature control without affecting the vital organs.

Some typical signs of heat exhaustion include:

excess sweating

Now, as athletes, we have probably all felt these symptoms while training and it does not necessarily mean we are suffering from heat exhaustion. We will, now and again, get a little dehydrated out in the elements. That is natural. Cramping can also be caused by a variety of factors beyond heat as well. Still, these are symptoms to be aware of while on the road.

Heat Stroke:
With heat stroke the body loses its ability to regulate its core temperature through sweat or radial heat and starts to shut down. Heat stroke requires immediate medical attention and may lead to cardiac arrest and death.


Extreme Fatigue
Inability to Sweat
Rapid Breathing
Red Skin

Riding in the heat will not necessarily lead to these symptoms if it is done with right with a healthy dose of awareness and caution. I have returned from some very long rides in temperatures exceeding 35º C with a temperature at statistically normal or unchanged (Though I am slightly hypothermic).

For riding in Taiwan's heat and stifling humidity I deploy a combination of tactics to ensure a long, safe ride at maximum power.

1. Training: My first summer of riding in Taiwan's heat was an eye opener. I didn't know what I needed to do it right. I built my bike up and it was ready to ride by the beginning of June, I think. It took all summer to get used to it and I did experience some extreme headaches upon coming home. I would do 40-50k, come home and crash on the couch. My body simply wasn't used to working in the heat. It takes acclimation time to be ready for the high temperature and a lot of good fitness to resist working too hard. Ease into the temperature with several incrementally longer rides in the heat until you can do several hours comfortably. It takes 7-10 days to build up your blood plasma for the heat.

2. Liquids: Drinking water is a no-brainer. As lame as it sounds to most roadies, a Camelbak might be a good investment for long, summer rides. They can hold more liquids and don't require too much effort for the occasional sip. I also like to drink water to FIN sport drink at a 2:1 ratio to ensure I can resupply my body with electrolytes. Sport drinks have a higher concentrate of sodium and potassium that help with the body's natural electrical conduction and replace the electrolytes lost in sweat. The added sodium helps the body retain water better than straight water to reduce the risk of heat exhaustion. I like FIN better as it is not as sugary as Supau or Pocari. If you have two water bottles, one could be water and one sport drink. It is ok to stop for water. Drink before you get thirsty. Maxim: Cash is lighter than water.

Occasionally, I like to use a bottle of water to dump over my head for cooling. This helps bring my temperature down and wash the salt off my face. There have been several times I have come home looking like a margarita glass. The salt on my skin just pulls the moisture right out.

In Taiwan we are lucky to have hydration available nearly everywhere, but it can take a little more planning in some of the more remote mountain areas. Politically I choose Family Mart over 7-11, but I take whatever I can get when I need liquids. Taiwan also has a wonderful network of betel nut stands that sell water, sport drink and other refreshments if you need them in a pinch.

It is also a good thing to start your hydration program a day or two early to ensure the body is saturated with fluids before the ride. That may mean waking up in the middle of the night to pee a couple times, but it mitigates the natural dehydration that occurs through perspiration and respiration during sleep. Don't over do it and wash out all your electrolytes. Sweating is a good sign, so be sure to keep it up.

3. Ventilation: Always try to wear something that allows airflow over the skin. For men, a full zip jersey can be opened up and allow the maximum benefit from sweating. A helmet with more holes the better. Of course the less helmet you buy... the more money you spend. Proper cycling clothing works best. Some people like to bring a handkerchief to wipe away the salts. Others like to wear full hot weather arm covers and leggings to protect against the UV rays and some people say it is actually cooler.

4. UV Protection: I always bring a bottle of waterproof sunscreen in my jersey pocket and although I get the sexy 70's tan lines, I don't get burned. I also need to remember to apply it to my head. There have been days I have felt spots of soreness on my head and found burn marks where the sun penetrated the holes of my helmet. Doh!

5. Nutrition: I try to eat a high carb, high sodium meal the night before a long ride to fill my glycogen and electrolyte stores before I ride. For breakfast I usually have a couple bananas for potassium and tums for magnesium. I take along a few granola bars for nutrition and sodium, but if I need to get water I like to get an occasional bag of Tong Yi Instant Noodles (統一麵). The instant noodles are portable, high carb and extremely high in sodium. They make a perfect snack for the heat. Eat before you get hungry.

6. Mental Preparation: Mentally prepare for the heat. Understand it will be hot and get over it. Keep the mind busy and push the heat out of mind.

Other Options:

If you really don't feel ready to ride in the heat of the day, there is plenty of heat and humidity at night. A good, hard, regular night ride can be a great way to build and maintain endurance while getting used to the heat. I actually love the relative coolness of the night rides. It is a good idea to get eyewear with clear lenses to protect against nighttime insects. There are fewer cars and a good light makes you easier to spot.

Tan lines are sexy