The harrowing sight of Callum Hawkins collapsing at the Commonwealth Games marathon on Sunday has got the media shining its spotlight onto the issue of how safe marathon running is. I was interviewed yesterday on BBC 5Live about what might have led to Hawkins’ collapse and whether it could have been prevented.
The answer to the first question is simple – heat exhaustion. Ambient temperature on race day was 28 degrees – six other runners out of the 24 who started did not complete the race. The answer to the second question is more complex. Heat exhaustion occurs when the body is unable to dissipate the extra heat being produced by exercise. Given that the harder you are working, the more heat you produce, the obvious solution would be to slow down – but try telling that to an athlete on their way to a gold medal.
Like all elite athletes, Hawkins’ years of intense training have enabled him to reach a stage where he can hear his body’s alarm systems screeching that he’s reaching his limits without really listening to them. I say ‘body’s alarm systems’, but really it’s the brain that imposes such limits. At least, that’s where the most recent theories are heading. For Professor Tim Noakes, the brain acts as a ‘central governor,’ which regulates muscle recruitment based on the feedback it receives from the body. If that feedback says heart rate is way too high, breathing is laboured and body temperature dangerously high, it responds protectively by forcing you to slow down or stop (which – eventually – it did in Hawkins’ case). In Professor Samuele Marcora’s Psychobiological Model, the brain regulates endurance performance consciously, rather than subconsciously, and bases its willingness to suffer discomfort and pain on your level of motivation. ‘People will engage in a task until the effort required reaches the maximum level they are willing to invest in order to succeed,’ Marcora told me in an interview. It makes perfect sense, when you consider Hawkins’ position on the cusp of winning a gold medal, that he’d be willing to endure increasingly high levels of suffering to reach his goal.
Essentially, the physical and mental toughness that Hawkins has built up over the course of his athletics career is the very thing that led to him continuing to run when every fibre of his being must have been telling him to stop. Couple that with ridiculously high levels of motivation and you could argue that Sunday’s traumatic events could not have been prevented (although what happened afterwards – in terms of how long it took for medical assistance to arrive – certainly could). It’s great to hear that Hawkins is now feeling better, but are there any lessons we lesser mortals can learn about running hard in the heat? Frankly, most of us aren’t highly trained – or motivated – enough to override our ‘central governors’ and would likely find ourselves slowing down or perhaps even bowing out in such conditions, but here are some useful hot-race day tips:
- Start cool – keep out of the sun before the race starts to keep body temperature in check. You could try draping a cold wet towel around your head and shoulders, or drinking an icy cold drink.
- Wear little, and opt for light colours.
- Keep to the shady parts of the course where possible.
- Stay well hydrated, of course, but save some of that water for pouring over your head or seek out sprinklers on the course. In a study last year, a group of runners endured 33-degree heat while they ran 5km time trials. Spraying cold water on their faces lowered their forehead temperature and ‘thermal sensation’ (how hot they felt).