The UAE summer is upon us, and with temperatures over the 40 degree Celsius mark, the last thing you probably want to do is go outside for your workout. But that extra sweaty exercise session might have more benefits to your training regime and overall health and fitness than you think.
“The main benefit we get from heat training is an increase in blood volume,” explains InnerFight Sport Science and Endurance Coach Tom Walker. “This is required in order to meet the increased demand for oxygen and fluid, and for greater efficiency in cooling ourselves through a higher sweat rate. This means when we return to training in colder conditions, we can transport a greater amount of blood around the body per minute — delivering great performance-boosting nutrients and fuels like oxygen.”
Another performance benefit is that the body becomes better at cooling itself down through sweating.
“Our version of a dog panting is sweating,” says Walker. “By shunting blood to the skin and opening pores we allow some of the fluid of our blood plasma to secrete sweat. This then gets evaporated from the skin into the air and helps draw heat away from us. By training in the heat, you can actually make yourself a more efficient cooler overall.”
Walker, who as an endurance athlete has trained in temperatures of up to 50 degrees Celsius, continues: “Your body gets better at responding to heat stress, so while it may feel impossible at the start, give your body a chance to adapt and after a period of time you will notice you tolerate the heat better.”
Simply put, working out in difficult conditions makes your normal workout easier to deal with, and in turn you can work harder and hit that personal best. However, training in such extreme conditions isn’t without danger.
“Prolonged heat training can be harmful, as it causes a lack of blood supply to the muscles, which can cause lactic acidosis,” explains Dr Taimoor Ata Tung from Medcare Orthopaedics & Spine Hospital.
This medical condition can lead to muscle pain, cramping, tiredness, abdominal pain, breathing difficulties and diarrhea.
“Heat training can also cause severe dehydration, heat exhaustion and heatstroke, which can become life threatening,” says Dr Tung. “Almost 70 percent of the body comprises of water, and severe dehydration causes water loss at a cellular level and leads to cell destruction.”
And that’s not all: “Heat exercise can lead to blood pooling in the limbs, which occurs due to two major factors: firstly, increased amount of plasma in the blood, which results in leakage of fluids in the dependent parts of the body; and secondly, loss of salts and proteins that hold the water inside the vessels,” says the general practitioner. “Dehydration will also result in a decreased amount of blood circulating in the body; and loss of salts, which can result in blood-pressure drop.”
Living in a desert country, most of us are educated about the dangers of dehydration, but Dr Tung is keen to give us all a reminder.
“During hot-weather exercise, watch for signs and symptoms of heat-related illness. If you ignore these symptoms, your condition can worsen, resulting in a medical emergency,” he warns. “Signs and symptoms may include muscle cramps, nausea or vomiting, weakness, fatigue, headache, excessive sweating, dizziness or lightheadedness, confusion, irritability, low blood pressure, increased heart rate and visual problems. If you develop any of these symptoms, you must lower your body temperature and get hydrated right away. Stop exercising immediately and get out of the heat. If possible, have someone stay with you who can help monitor your condition.”
There’s also a lesser known issue our bodies might face during heat exercise.
“Our stomachs are usually rich with blood to aid in digestion and nutrient absorption, but when we exercise in the heat the blood is pulled away from non-essential organs and redirected to the skin in order to help regulate temperature,” explains Walker. “With less help at the gut to digest the foods and fluids you are consuming during your training or race, we see side effects such as bloating, gas or diarrhea.”
But don’t let all this put you off. Natasha Rudatsenko, owner of Dubai hot yoga studio DRYP, says exercising in hot conditions can be done safely and she has been doing it for over 10 years.
“I love hot yoga and heat training, and practice in around 37 degrees Celsius with over 40 percent humidity,” says the naturopath. “Training in hot conditions requires preparation and the individual must properly hydrate prior to any exercise. Start slowly, take all the necessary breaks, and heated exercise can become a beneficial part of your training regime. When you exercise normally, your blood gets pumping to deliver adequate oxygen to your muscles. In heat, more blood circulates through your skin to cool the body, which in turn also increases your heart rate, which is commonly known to help burn fat and deliver a more powerful cardio workout.”
One of the most important safety factors is knowing how much to hydrate and what with.
“If you drink too much water, you risk flushing out too many essential minerals,” explains Rudatsenko. “You need several different minerals to maintain good function, energy and hydration levels. The four main electrolytes comprise of sodium and chloride to maintain fluid balance, potassium to prevent cramping, calcium to regulate muscle contractions and heart rhythm, and magnesium, which works to relax muscles. Bicarbonates are also helpful as they can assist in preventing fatigue early and enhance endurance to push on.”
Electrolytes are readily available to buy as rehydration tablets that can be added to water and can be taken before, during and after heat exercise, depending on the type and duration of the workout. Rudatsenko, whose studio offers heated weights, HIIT and Barre sessions alongside yoga, has her own recipe: “Try fresh coconut or a bottle of mineral water with squeezed lemon juice, a pinch of Himalayan salt and a bit of Manuka honey.”
So now that you’re well hydrated and you understand the dangers, what’s the best way to get started with heat training?
“Avoid wearing water-absorbing heavy material or materials that do not conduct heat well,” advises Walker. “A hat to keep the sun off your head is a very good idea to avoid heatstroke. And my top tip is to put ice-cold towels under it too. Another often overlooked piece of clothing for the heat is socks! Our feet sweat a lot and are a key place where we lose heat, so thin socks designed for hot conditions are a good idea.”
Walker suggests starting off easy. “Keep heart rate in a low aerobic state, and as you feel the comfort to heat grow, add intensity to your sessions but reduce volume or add volume but reduce intensity,” he explains. “The most important part to heat adaptation is understanding your limitations and not expecting to push hard or go super long like you would in normal environments.”
Walker is confident that with time you can move all your workouts outside. But again, think safety first.
“Once acclimatized, if training every day in the heat, you must rehydrate back to baseline levels post-session or the following day you will suffer. If you continue to end each day dehydrated, eventually your body will start to shut you down.”
Are there particular workouts better suited to the heat?
“You can do most workouts in hot weather, but be mindful if you are doing really long ones that you will need to add in stops to refill water bottles much more than you would in cooler climates,” explains Walker. “For pure strength and power athletes looking to gain performance, there is not much benefit of heat training as blood supply to the muscle in not optimal. However, for cardiac output increase, without needing to go on a cardio machine, alongside resistance training benefits, it can be a good way to do it!”
So, in conclusion, is hot weather training worth the effort? Rudatsenko — and devotees of her studio — says yes.
“Heated practice improves blood circulation, it’s a great cardiovascular workout, it improves endurance and stamina plus it allows you to stretch deeper and burn more fat,” says Rudatsenko. “There is also a tremendous number of endorphins released during the intense sweating session and it is highly detoxifying. As the body continues to get warmer, the heart pumps faster, bringing blood closer to the surface of the skin, the capillaries dilate, your skin turns pinker, and sweat seeps through our pores and evaporates, removing heavy metals and other toxins.”
Devinder Bains is journalist of 20 years, working as a writer and editor on some of the biggest national magazines, newspapers and online publications in the UK and the Middle East. She specialises in women’s empowerment, fashion, race, culture and travel, and as a qualified personal trainer and nutrition coach, she is an expert in health and fitness. She splits her time between freelance writing and running Fit Squad DXB – Dubai’s largest personal training and wellness company.