Surface tension

One of the reasons the anti-road brigade say that trail running is ‘better’, is that it puts less stress on the body. Intuitively, it makes sense (softer surface equals a softer landing, right?) but there has been surprisingly little research to back up the claim…

Are you a road runner or a trail runner? It’s not a question that I could answer definitively – I run where the day’s route takes me, be it through a leaf-carpeted woodland (this morning), along a city street (last week) or across a muddy field (yesterday). Each has its own pleasures and challenges.

But some runners can be very snobby about surface. A trail aficionado recently commented on Twitter that ‘people who do road marathons hate themselves.’  You’ll find similar disparaging remarks about tarmac enthusiasts if you look at trail running forums and specialist publications. The gist of it is that road running is deathly dull/bad for you/a poor substitute and that running off-road is in all ways more fun, healthier and generally superior. I think it’s an unfounded and unwelcome division – like vegans dissing vegetarians – we’re all runners, aren’t we?

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The tweet came to mind at the weekend, when I was toiling along a public footpath bordering a field that the farmer had decided to plough to the very edge of the barbed-wire fence. Each time my foot landed, the clump of earth underneath it would either crumble or roll, creating angles at my ankle and knee joints that would have a biomechanist brandishing their goniometer with alarm. Any views to be appreciated went unnoticed, since I had to keep my eyes firmly on the treacherous trail.

There was little relief to be had when I reached the stile, which was so overgrown with nettles that getting over it could have passed as a ‘I’m a celebrity…get me out of here’-style challenge. ‘Fun, this is not,’ I thought to myself. Fifteen minutes later, the nettle stings fading (the secret is to avoid touching them) I was floating along a blissfully smooth tarmac lane. The ironed-flat surface rendered me surefooted enough to appreciate my surroundings – ripe blackberries in the hedgerow, leaves just turning in the autumn sunshine. My good mood was restored.

Now, I’m not claiming that road running is more enjoyable than trail; nor ‘better’ in any way. I love the ever-changing demands of an off-road run – one minute, mud is sucking at your trainers, the next you’re bounding through knee-high grass, leaping over tangled tree roots or skipping from rock to rock. But it’s hard to find any kind of rhythm – which is why I also relish the clean, rhythmic clip of feet on tarmac and the space that that metronomic movement seems to create in my head.

One of the reasons the anti-road brigade say that trail running is ‘better’, is that it puts less stress on the body. Intuitively, it makes sense (softer surface equals a softer landing, right?) but there has been surprisingly little research to back up the claim. In fact, studies seems to suggest that there’s a complex and entirely subconscious interplay between our limbs and the surfaces we run on: the ‘stiffer’ the surface, the ‘softer’ we make the limbs, and vice versa. It’s known as ‘muscle tuning’. This continual adjustment of limb stiffness to match the surface the brain expects us to land on means that the resultant force is pretty much unchanged regardless of surface.

More recently, researchers have posited the theory that trail running may be healthier (though there is not data to prove that trail runners sustain fewer injuries as yet) because of the variety offered by the mixed terrain and undulations. Each footstep is slightly different from the last one and the next one, so the forces exerted on the body are applied in slightly different ways, reducing the risk of overuse. This makes perfect sense and is probably also why varying your running shoes, rather than wearing the same pair all the time, has been linked to a lower incidence of injury.

Variety is almost always better than doing the same thing all the time – but when it comes to running surfaces there’s no reason why a brightly-lit town pavement or a country B-road should not form part of that variety.

This article previously appeared in my Murphy’s Lore column in Runner’s World magazine

 

 

Get Your Kicks On Route 1066

A two-day running adventure that retraces the footsteps of William the Conqueror through gorgeous Sussex countryside.

I can’t decide whether the glittering wings I’m watching spiral in a shaft of dappled light are those of butterflies or fairies. It’s been a long day – I’m hot, tired and somewhat dazzled by the sun that has shone mercilessly upon us every step of the way.  The fluttering creatures turn out to be common large whites, but the spectacle is none the less magical for it and provides a reason to linger in the cool refuge of this sunken lane, shaded by branches that almost join overhead to form a tunnel.

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We’re somewhere between Herstmonceux and Battle, following the 1066 Country Walk, a 32-mile marked trail from Pevensey Castle to Rye. But we’re not walking, we’re running.

It’s a dry run (pun intended) for our forthcoming two-day running adventure – and so far, so good. Is the route runnable? Tick. Does it divide neatly into two days of manageable distance? Tick. Is the scenery suitably gorgeous and varied? Tick.

We pressed ‘start’ on our watches a few hours ago, as we passed through the eastern gate of the Roman wall that surrounds the picturesque ruins of medieval Pevensey castle.  Soon we’re striking out across the Pevensey Levels, an expanse of low-lying grassland and marsh that, as little as 700 years ago, was under water and is now considered an area of special scientific interest, thanks to its diversity of flora and fauna. The air is alive with lark song and the drowsy hum of bees as we follow the trail alongside waterways, through fields of beans and corn and meadows swaying with wild flowers.

 

After a few miles of flat and easygoing terrain, we begin to climb, making a beeline for the distinctive shingled tower of All Saints Church, originally built in the late 12th century, where it served the residents of Herstmonceux, a medieval village, the modern version of which now sits two miles’ north.

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History is one thing that the 1066 trail offers in abundance. Yep, the clue is in the title – the route traces the footsteps made by William the Conqueror 952 years ago, after he landed on Pevensey’s shores from France and marched into what remains one of the most famous battles of all time.

Renowned it may be, but there’s disagreement about what actually happened at the Battle of Hastings. Not everyone goes along with the belief that King Harold took an arrow in the eye (how his death is depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry, as every school child will know), and while it’s well known that the battle did not take place in Hastings, some historians also dispute the claim that it took place on the site where Battle Abbey, commissioned by William in 1070, now stands and where we plan to finish the first day of this running adventure.

Entering the grounds of Herstmonceux Castle, we take a leap forward 400-odd years – the stunning moated red-brick castle was built in the mid 1440s and later briefly owned by Henry VIII.

IMG_6550By this time we’re asking ourselves the important question ‘Are there nice places to stop on the way for an energy top-up?’ Feeling that we owe it to our future customers to find out, we sample the cream teas at the castle’s Chestnut tearooms. (And similarly, later in the day, the ales at a quintessentially English pub, The Ash Tree, in the fabulously named Brown Bread Street.) Big ticks all round.

In fact, Jeff credits his pint of Goose Island IPA for getting him up Tent Hill, where William the Conqueror allegedly camped the night before battle. He’d certainly have had a good vantage point from its summit…

But unlike William, we are in no fit state for Battle when we make it there from Pevensey at tea time. We drag our weary selves to The Bull for a hearty dinner and then take a wander around the quiet town. Whether or not King Harold was felled here or not, the place is steeped in history. Just ruins remain of the original abbey, but these and later buildings, like the imposing 14th-century turreted gatehouse, are now in the capable hands of English Heritage and visited by thousands of tourists each year.

We have 17 miles in the bag as we head to the B&B for much-needed showers and a good night’s sleep.

Day two dawns hot and cloudless. We leave Battle to its Sunday lie-in and set off a little stiffly, weighed down by breakfast and topped-up camelbaks. There are a couple of roads to negotiate, but a mile or so out of town we enter Great Wood, following a wide, easy track between conifer forest and stretches of open heathland.

The route feels hillier today – we climb and drop with a frequency that drives us to devise a ‘walk 10 steps, run 10 steps’ strategy on the steeper slopes to keep ourselves going. From one summit, we catch a glimpse of Hastings in the distance. But mercifully, there are also more forested stretches on the day’s route, which means there’s more escape from the sun than was offered by the vast expanse of the Pevensey Levels. Even so, I’m draining my water supply at an alarming rate, running in this heat.

We take a break at Westfield cricket ground, perching on wooden posts under the trees lining the oval to look at the map and eat a handful of nuts, dried fruit and sugary sweets. We decide to press on to Icklesham for lunch – it means more climbing, but will leave less distance to run in the afternoon. Later, when we’re munching doorstep sandwiches in the cool of the bar at the Queen’s Head, we’re glad we did.

If you’ve never combined running and eating (or drinking anything other than an energy drink), you might be concerned about how your digestive system might react to a mid-run meal.  I’ve been pleasantly surprised how well mine has coped, but I certainly wouldn’t want to scoff a sausage roll halfway through a 10K – the reason it works is because the pace is easy. This type of running adventure is about the journey, not the destination…

Tummies sated, drinks topped up, we leave Icklesham village through the churchyard (and, accidentally, via someone’s garden) and strike out across high fields from where we get our first glimpse of the sea, shimmering in the heat haze. Sheep wedge themselves into every inch of available shade among the thorny hedgerows that border the fields, and we try not to disturb them as we pass. Then we drop down to a country lane before a stiff climb up and over Hog’s Hill where there is a windmill, reputedly used as a recording studio by Paul McCartney, and from where you can see the ancient towns of Winchelsea and Rye perched on their respective hills.

I say ‘ancient,’ but the Winchelsea that stands today is officially ‘new’ Winchelsea, built by Edward I in 1288 to replace ‘old’ Winchelsea, which was washed away by violent storms. The village and its environs are littered with ruins. First, we spot New Gate, one of four gates into the town built during the 14th century (three remain standing). It’s now surrounded by sloping fields, which we climb, passing the ruined gable end of a medieval almshouse as we join the road into the centre of the village. It’s a pristine English village – not a flower out of place – with a cricket field, a village shop and pub. I half expect to see Miss Marple walking up the street… The grand and partially ruined St Thomas’ Church (built at the same time as the new town) sits at its centre, and in its graveyard you can find Spike Milligan’s grave, with its famous inscription ‘I told you I was ill’.

We head west out of the village, looking out across the Brede valley before skipping down the hill (it helps to keep you relaxed, rather than tensing up, Jeff persuades me) and turning back on ourselves, past Winchelsea’s sleepy station and onto the track to Rye. This final part of the route is one that we know well – it’s close to home and we run and walk it regularly. I’d often noticed the red and white plaques along it that mark the 1066 Trail and wondered what it was all about. Two days and 32 miles after leaving Pevensey, I now know.

1066 trail

Interested in joining us on a 2-day 1066 Running Adventure this autumn? Email me or keep an eye on the website for details http://www.sam-murphy.co.uk

 

 

 

 

 

What’s the difference between a placebo and an ergogenic aid?

Whether it’s EPO, caffeine or compression socks, what we believe affects our performance probably does…

Oh sorry, were you expecting a punchline? I’m afraid it’s my reflections on the blurry line between something that science says improves performance (an ergogenic aid) and a placebo (something that shouldn’t, but does).

I’m one of those people who considers the fruits of scientific research to be the bedrock of improving athletic performance, so studies like this recent offering from the University of Sao Paulo University are a useful but disconcerting reminder that that how the body responds to any stimulus cannot be separated from how the mind responds.

The Brazilian study looked at the effects of caffeine ingestion on performance in two cycling tests, compared to a control condition without caffeine. But here’s the thing: unbeknown to the subjects, the caffeine in the second trial was bogus and therefore could not exert any ergogenic (performance-enhancing) effect. So what happened in the three trials? Time to exhaustion and rate of perceived exertion (how hard the cyclists felt they worked) in both the real caffeine trial and the sham caffeine trial were better than in the control trial and barely different from each other. In other words, just thinking they’d had caffeine enabled the subjects to cycle harder, whether they had or not.

It was only a small study, admittedly, but it did remind me of an evening when I drank a cup of coffee shortly before bedtime, having been assured it was decaf, and went on to sleep soundly – only to be told by my host the next morning that I’d been Java-powered. A sort of reverse placebo effect… And that, in turn, reminded me of the time I got rather tipsy at a party, only to discover that I had been supping non-alcoholic beer all evening.

It demonstrates how powerfully our beliefs effect our reality – and, when it comes to running, performance. In 2015, researchers at the University of Glasgow recruited a group of runners to test a new drug purporting to mimic the endurance-boosting effects of the banned drug EPO. The runners took part in a 3km race and then injected the substance daily for seven days before repeating the 3km race. Not only did their performance improve by 1.2 per cent – 9.7 seconds (the equivalent of around two minutes off a marathon time), their perception of effort was lower and they recovered faster. Impressive stuff: especially when you learn that the ‘drug’ was actually a harmless saline solution.

In other research, exercisers bounced back from an intense workout after bathing for 15 minutes in lukewarm water containing a special ‘recovery oil.’ Their recovery – gauged by pain levels, leg strength and readiness to exercise again – was significantly faster than a control group who bathed in plain warm water.

The fact that the mind can exert such a strong influence over the body through the courage of its convictions throws into question how much sway scientific research should hold over what we do, or don’t do, in our efforts to run and recover faster. It certainly suggests there is a Tinker Bell element to it – you have to believe in the pills, potions and practices you invest in to run better and consider ditching the ones that, deep down, you don’t think play any role in aiding performance.

And that brings me to one final study to share, regarding the thorny issue of whether stretching is important or not for runners. The researchers found that when half a group of committed stretchers were instructed not to stretch before their runs for 16 weeks, they suffered more injuries than their peers who continued to stretch. Conversely, half of a group of non-stretchers were asked to stretch pre-run for the same period while their fellow stretch shirkers carried on as usual. Once again, it was those who were asked to act in a way that did not fit with their beliefs that got the most injuries.

What was on trial in this study wasn’t stretching at all, but what we believe about it. And that leads me to conclude that perhaps the biggest ergogenic aid of all is the one we already have – sitting between our ears.

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3 ways to run a faster 5K – tomorrow!

OK, so there’s no way you can improve your running fitness in the next 24 hours. But that doesn’t mean you can’t upgrade your performance. Here are just three ideas – and they’re all legal!

Grin and bear it

Kipchoge was on to something when he flashed the odd smile on his way around the Monza race track during his sub-two-hour marathon attempt last year. A recent study at Ulster University found that smiling during hard exercise improves running economy (a measure of efficiency). Runners were instructed to either smile or frown while they performed four hard six-minute runs on a treadmill. The results showed that smiling improved their running economy by 2.8 per cent compared to frowning, and by 2.2 per cent compared to a ‘control’ condition, in which facial expression was neutral. Get that happy face ready…

Full of beans

You’ve heard it before (and there is research to suggest that not everyone benefits) but a study at the University of Ballarat in Australia found that a pre-run caffeine dose (5mg per kg of each athlete’s body weight) elicited a small but significant improvement in 5km run time while a review from the University of Georgia reported that the average improvement in ‘time to completion’ trials (which mimic real-life racing better than ‘time to exhaustion’ trials) was 3.1%, with doses ranging from ranging from 3-8mg/kg.

Unlike with nitrates (aka beetroot juice), the effect was seen in both recreational and well-trained runners. For best results, studies suggest that your caffeine hit needs to be taken around an hour before your workout (which, conveniently, means you’ll have time to visit the loo after the caffeine has exerted its effect on your bowels!).

Energy gels and caffeine pills – or coffee? It doesn’t much matter, though the former allow you to keep tabs on exactly how much caffeine you are consuming.

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Lighten up

Leave those trusty cushioned trainers at home and step into a lightweight racing flat. Shoe weight really does make a difference. In a clever study at the University of Colorado, subjects performed three 3000m trials wearing Nike racing flats; but unbeknownst to them, the 200g shoes had tiny lead beads sewn into them for two of the trials, adding 100g and 300g respectively. The results showed that each 100g of additional weight slowed the runners down by 0.78%. What does that mean in real terms? Well, for someone running the 3000m in 11 minutes 23 seconds (the time predicted for a runner who can do 5K in 20 minutes flat) this would equate to slowing by 5.3 seconds for each  100g of additional weight. This is an instance where less really is more…

How slow running can reveal form flaws

When I am devising running programmes for my clients, I give them a pace ‘guideline’ for each of the different types of run they do. Most will have recovery runs in their schedules, where the object is to keep the pace and effort level really low. The run needs to be low-intensity enough to not require any further recovery – so going faster than the guideline pace is not necessary and may well be counter-productive. And yet, over and over again I hear the cries ‘I can’t run that slow!’ ‘It’s more tiring to run slowly’ and most of all ‘Sorry, I tried to run slow but I inadvertently speeded up.’

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I’ve mulled over this a lot – worried about it, even – because personally, I have no problem whatsoever running slow. But it doesn’t mean I can’t, or don’t, run fast when I need to. It’s often observed – with amazement – how slow Kenyan runners go in their easy runs, given how fast they could be going.

I’m starting to wonder whether running technique has something to do with people finding it ‘hard’ to run slow.  If you run with good form, then that form should hold true whatever pace you are maintaining. Running slower shouldn’t mean a slow ‘sticky’ cadence, a shuffling gait or a minimal leg lift. I suspect that people who find it very hard to run slow are doing the following: overstriding – most likely with a heel strike – running with too slow a cadence or too much tension. One of the drills that running coach and Alexander Technique teacher Malcolm Balk suggests in his book Master the Art of Running is to run very slow whilst maintaining perfect form. I highly recommend giving it a try.

The other reason runners can’t slow down is probably mental. It’s an issue of bravado – ‘hell, I can’t run THAT slow!’ – with the tacit suggestion being either ‘I’m too good,’ or ‘someone might see me and think I’m slow…’ But I’d say it takes focus and commitment to reap the benefits of any training session – and recovery runs are not excepted. Try a go-slow on your next run and you might just find that less is more.

Plantar fasciitis – a fresh approach

Despite its complex name, many runners can pronounce plantar fasciitis because they’ve had the misfortune of personal experience. I’ve heard it called the ME of sports injuries because it’s so hard to pin down what triggers it and equally hard to find a way to get rid of it. It’s not uncommon for the condition to last six months or more. Part of the problem with defining the cause and solution is the fact that there’s little agreement on what PF actually is. The ‘itis’ in the name suggests it is a condition that involves inflammation but this has been challenged in recent years and some podiatrists and sports medicine experts have called for it to be known as plantar fasciosis instead. An ‘osis’ is degeneration of tissue, rather than inflammation – and as such, requires a different approach when it comes to treatment. (That might explain why the ‘usual suspect’ remedies, such as rest, ice and anti-inflammatories – or even corticosteroid injections provide little more than passing relief.)

In one study, tissue biopsies were taken from people suffering from severe PF and then assessed. There was no evidence of inflammation in the plantar fascia, but there were numerous microscopic tears and signs of degeneration (necrosis) both in the plantar fascia itself and within the intrinsic flexor muscles of the foot.

Caused by what? Well, you may not need to look further than your own footwear.  A lot of running shoes (in fact, a lot of shoes in general) don’t have enough space – or the correct shape – in the toe box, causing the big toe to be drawn towards the other toes (adducted). Then there’s the common shoe feature called ‘toe spring,’ which pulls your toes into extension because the front end of the sole curves upwards (shown below). Add this to the fact that in most shoes your heel is raised higher than your toes, and you end up with the toes – most notably the big toe – being forced into both extension and adduction. As a result, blood flow (via the posterior tibial artery) to the PF and surrounding structures is compromised, allowing degeneration to take place.

To get a sense of the position in which the foot is held in most footwear, push your toes together, raise your heel off the floor and pull your toes into extension. If you now press your fingers along the medial side of the heel, you may well find you can recreate your pain symptoms. This position will greatly increase tension in the flexor muscles on the bottom of the foot as well as the PF – an effect magnified by the forces of running.

So please, if you have PF, DON’T STRETCH YOUR PLANTAR FASCIA EVEN FURTHER! Besides this exacerbating the problem, you are also stretching what is an essential part of your elastic energy return system, which helps to propel you through your running stride without using up precious energy.

So what’s to be done? First, you need to allow the toes to sit properly. That means a shoe with enough space in the toe box but more specifically, space for the big toe to sit straight, not curving in towards the other toes. I highly recommend Altra, Vivobarefoot and some Inov-8 models (those described as standard fit, not precision fit). You can check out my shoe reviews to see which brands and models fit the bill.

I also recommend Correct Toes toe spacers, which are designed to be worn inside footwear (or barefoot, of course) to help realign your toes back to their correct anatomical position. They were created by a running podiatrist in the United States, and I found them invaluable in getting over my long-standing PF (and that’s why, unashamedly, I’m now involved in selling them in the UK online).

The other important shoe-related thing to avoid if you’re suffering PF is excessive toe spring (ie. when the shoe curves upwards at the toes, court jester style) or an overly stiff midsole. Check whether your running shoe allows the foot to bend where it’s designed to bend – across the ball of the foot.

PF sufferers also need to get those feet supple and mobile again. Stretching the tight toe extensors is the best starting point.

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Toe extensor stretch

This position stretches the toes at the metatarsophalangeal (MTP) joint – the ‘knuckle’ of the foot. You can do this sitting or standing (sitting is easier to get to grips with). Extend one leg a little way back behind the body and place the upper surface of the toes on the floor. Exert a little pressure. This should bend the toes at the MTP joint.

You’ll feel the stretch across the top of the foot and perhaps across the front of the ankle. As the muscles become more flexible, bring the foot further forward, relative to the body, to increase the stretch.

Deep tissue massage is also helpful in mobilising the feet and improving blood flow when rehabbing from PF. A golf ball underneath the ball of the foot can help get that MTP joint moving, as shown below.

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Mobilising the MTP

I also regularly use a pedi roller to stretch and ‘iron’ out the connective tissue on the soles of my feet, and get my fingers in between the big toe and second toe to massage between them, both from above and below.

There will undoubtedly be physios, podiatrists and the like who will dismiss outright the notion that modern footwear and its effect on foot structure/alignment causes plantar pain. Indeed, people suffering from PF are often given MORE cushioning and MORE support in their shoes when they actually need less. But the huge number of runners with ongoing, stubborn plantar pain that doesn’t respond to the usual bag of tricks might be more open to suggestion. That’s how I felt after I’d had a corticosteroid injection, two different pairs of orthotics, done copious stretching, icing and resting and was still on the bench nigh on a year later.  Why not free your feet and see what happens? And please report back!

Callum Hawkins: a lesson in elite suffering

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).