Heat Myths and Warnings

It’s summer, and the news is full of dire warnings about heat. Mostly justified, but some based on myths debunked all the way back in the 1940s.

In case you haven’t heard, it’s going to be hot here in Portland. As I’m writing, my app upped its prediction for day after tomorrow from 113° to 115°.

Most people have never experienced 115°. I have. Actually, it was 125°.

Here are a couple things I learned in the school of hard knocks—things you probably won’t read about in the news.

  • These temperatures will kill electronics. Even turned off, in the shade. Believe the owner’s manual when it gives a maximum operating temperature and maximum storage temperature. These are real.
  • At 110 °and higher, a breeze isn’t your friend. The hot air imparts more heat to your skin than it removes by facilitating evaporation. It’s a weird experience, but also very real.
  • Believe it or not, the coolest, most comfortable clothing is long sleeves and long pants, loose (the looser the better), and light-colored. The desert-dwelling Bedouin have a mantra: dress to keep the heat out. Why do we think we know better than people who have lived in these conditions for untold generations?

A bigger issue is hydration

Pretty much everything you read says that keeping well hydrated is your defense against heat. This is wrong. It’s based on a mistaken belief that dehydration causes heatstroke.

Heat causes heat stroke. Heat also causes dehydration, so the two sometimes go in tandem. But dehydration in and of itself does not cause heatstroke, unless you are so dehydrated that you run out of fluids to sweat out.

If you want hundreds of pages of details on this, check out Waterlogged by South African exercise physiologist Tim Noakes, known to runners for his encyclopedic tome, The Lore of Running. It’s a fun read, but a shorter answer comes from research done during World War II by E. O. Adolph, an exercise physiologist who marched volunteers around the desert near Yuma, Arizona, trying to help the Army prepare for the North Africa campaign.

He made several important findings, but the most important for this discussion is that his volunteers could be as much as 7-10 percent dehydrated (the equivalent to a 150-pound person losing up to 7 liters of water), and not suffer anything worse than becoming grumpy, thirsty, tired, and eventually refusing to budge. Given water and a rest, they were perfectly ready to go again the next day.

So, stay hydrated to avoid becoming grumpy, thirsty, tired, and otherwise miserable. But don’t count on it to stave off heatstroke. (Though, drinking a quart of cold water can lower your core temperature by a full degree, simply from the heat it absorbs as it warms up.)

Finally, be aware of the risk of hyponatremia, a potentially deadly condition created by low sodium in your bloods. Most reports about it involve people who take “hydrate, hydrate, hydrate” too seriously and drink too much. But it can happen even if you don’t excessively hydrate, because the fluids you drink (even sports drinks like Gatorade) contain less sodium than you are sweating off. The result is that you can actually dehydrate but flush enough sodium out of your body to become hyponatremic.  

This is not myth. I’ve seen it happen to an elite athlete in a hot-weather marathon. Luckily, my marathoner had salt tablets in her kit. Two of those and she perked up with amazing rapidity.

Runners and the media always talk about electrolytes. But in the short run, the one that really matters is sodium. A big hit from the salt shaker can do the trick. I’ve even been known to put a couple of salt packets from a place like McDonald’s in a plastic bag in my pocket, so I have them if needed.

Finally, be aware of the symptoms of heat stress. Many are subtle, but one of the most important is that if you feel chilled on a hot day, it’s a sign of impending heatstroke. Stop what you’re doing and get out of the heat ASAP.

The Race I Never Dreamed I’d Run

Ten years ago, I had knee surgery.

I will never forget what the doctor told me when I woke up. “It’s worse than we thought.” He then added that the drugs from the surgery would mean that I wouldn’t remember those words, but he was wrong. Running as I knew it ended that day.

Seven years later, I had a hip replacement. Arthritis is the family bane. But this time, I wasn’t even thinking about running. Not only had I gained dozens of pounds, but the hip was so bad that the surgeon took one look at the X-ray and said, “That’s a bad hip. Let me check my schedule to see if we can move up your surgery.”

She did, for which I was grateful. I’d reached the point where the 150 meters from the nearest parking spot to the track where I was then coaching had become the longest walk I could manage without a break, and I took it for granted that there would be a time or two each day when the pain would be enough to make me nauseous.

But this is not that kind of story.

Because earlier this month, I rediscovered racing.

Read the rest on Podium Runner…

My 2016 Book…and the London Marathon

Back in 2016, I coauthored a short book (more a novella than a novel) with Phil Maffetone about a hypothetical “Million Dollar Marathon,” in which runners competed on a one-mile track, with the giant prize to anyone who could break 2 hours.

It’s fiction—I thought of it as near-future science fiction, since that is part of what I write—focused on a Tibetan refugee whose background gives him all the tools needed to make this quest possible.

Now, this weekend, the London Marathon—thanks to COVID-19—will be conducted under a protocol amazingly similar to that in our book. The best in the world, male and female will duel on ~20 laps of a 1.34-mile loop.  Not a track, but not all that different from Phil’s and my setup.

Continue reading My 2016 Book…and the London Marathon

Motivation and Humiliation

The Alberto Salazar/Mary Cain story is very much a moving target, as was revealed today in Sport’s Illustrated’s detailed feature.

What I want to do here is address a small piece of it. In a prior post, I wrote:

“A friend … once told me that male coaches who started out with boys tend to mis-coach women….With guys, my friend says, it’s possible to motivate by humiliation. With women, she says (after admitting it’s a stereotype), that simply doesn’t work.”

Most people agreed, but I also got feedback suggesting that humiliation isn’t the optimum motivator for boys either.

Let me start by saying that I concur. What my friend (and I) were saying was simply that boys can be motivated in that manner.

I know, because it happened to me.

Continue reading Motivation and Humiliation

Mary Cain’s Bombshell

For the last month, I’ve been half-expecting another shoe to drop in the sad story of Alberto Salazar and the Nike Oregon Project (NOP)–sad, because, as I wrote previously, Alberto and I had been colleagues and there were many things I respected and admired about him.

But I never dreamed that the shoe was going to come in the manner or direction from which it did.

If you didn’t see it, Mary Cain, once the fastest young woman in America, in an opinion piece in the New York Times accused Alberto of fat-shaming her, trying to force her to lose weight via birth control pills, (illegal) diuretics, public weigh-ins, and other forms of emotional abuse.

It was a devastating article, followed up by confirmation on Twitter by Olympian and former NOP runner Amy Yoder Begley that the same had happened to her toward the end of her career.

You would be hard-pressed to find two more credible sources. Even before Amy’s confirmation, I believed Mary. If it had been sour grapes for not doing well after entering the program, she’d have done it years ago, rather than silently taking abuse for being a washout who couldn’t handle the pressure.

To me, this is far worse than the errors that led to Alberto’s doping ban. In those, he was basically playing the mad scientist, without thinking enough about the consequences and technicalities of the rules.  Here, he screwed up in a very different way.

When the news broke, I spent a lot of time going back over the books he and I wrote together. The publisher’s marketing department insisted that they all be written in Alberto’s first-person voice, even though the contract made me a more-equal contributor. That meant I spent a lot of time rewriting my own ideas as if they were Alberto’s, making it a little hard to sort them back out, today.

What I do know is that there were large parts I wrote in his voice, then submitted for his approval: “This is what you’re saying, unless you disagree.”

For example, he knew very little about master’s running, so I wrote that part. And most of the chapter on injuries was mine, largely because I’d written similar ones for books on bicycling and cross-country skiing.

A friend who is a former pro (not NOP) once told me that male coaches who started out with boys tend to mis-coach women.

That, I suspect describes Alberto. He came out of the male-track culture, then started coaching Galen Rupp and the altitude-house guys. Women, for the most part, came later.

With guys, my friend says, it’s possible to motivate by humiliation. With women, she says (after admitting it’s a stereotype), that simply doesn’t work. Most will just quit and go away, though there are others, who, like characters in a Shakespearean tragedy, will fall on their swords for a simple “good job”.

So, part of my take on this is that Alberto, however successful he’s been with some women, may not “get” women the way my friend describes.

Until the NYT article, I’d never heard of what felled Mary Cain, RED-S syndrome. When I Googled it, however, I discovered it was the same as female triad, which I’d long known: the nasty trio of eating disorder, loss of menstrual period, and stress fractures from lost bone density.

Mary says she lost her period for three years and had five stress fractures in five different bones.

In my books with Alberto, we warned about that, but now I now wonder how much the warning came from me, rather than him.

Alberto’s target weight for Mary was too light. Not because the charts said so, or because she looked too thin, but because she was losing periods.

For him to ask her to lose weight, and not monitor her periods (or advise her to do so) is…well, I find it hard to find the words.

In one of our books, “we” wrote that ideal weight for female runners is hard to determine. If you weigh too much, you’re slower than you could be, easily hurt, and subject to health problems. If you’re too light, you’re slower than you could be, easily hurt, and subject to different health problems.

Did he not remember that we wrote that? Or didn’t he really believe it?

But the core of Mary’s story is worse. She says she was engaged in cutting.

Nobody would lie about that; the stigma is immense. But when she worked up the nerve to tell Alberto and the group’s sport psychologist, she says, they were too tired, wanted to go to sleep, and blew her off.

I have trouble processing this.

Cutting is a red-flag warning of a serious problem.

When someone you care about tells you of something like that, everything else stops.

I have no training in how to react, specifically, to cutting, and was going to say I have no clue how to react. But I do: listen. Support their courage for talking about it. Make sure they’re not suicidal. Refer them to a trained helper, or assist in finding one. Stay up as late as needed, or at least until you’re about to keel over.

If Alberto didn’t know how to react, I get it. The sports psychology parts of our books were another portion that was mostly my doing.

But how could NOP’s sports psychologist not instantly have gone into “therapist” mode?

“Tell me more.” That’s all you have to say. It’ll open a floodgate.