I am 4 miles into the third section of the Rhody Rovers Enduro and getting my can kicked by my long time nemeses: heat and humidity. This section isn’t particularly difficult or slow going, but it is long and the humidity is so thick that it feels like I am wrapped in a hot, wet blanket. Even as the air moves through my vented clothing, the humidity is so high that I hardly feel a cooling effect. The heavy-flow maxi pad I have strategically stuck inside my helmet to absorb sweat is completely saturated and sweat is streaming down the interior of my goggle lens.
In an attempt to cool itself, the body sends more blood to circulate through the skin, which leaves less blood for your muscles, which in turn increases your heart rate. When the humidity is high, the body faces added stress because sweat doesn’t readily evaporate from your skin. That pushes your body temperature even higher and once you’re sucked into the downward spiral of heat-related illness, it’s hard to pull out of. Nothing performs well when it over heats. Nothing. The following day I am the most sore than I’ve been in years.
Most of us understand the importance of proper hydration, so I am not going to bore you with the obvious. Instead, given the uniqueness of our sport, which includes intense exercise in hot, humid weather wearing full battle dress, I am to share a few tips I’ve drawn from the Trail Rider peanut gallery. If you’ve been around a while, you’ve probably heard some of it already but for those new to the sport, it may be worth your read.
Those of us wrapped up in the GP discipline have the best chance of avoiding heat illness. The enduro riders have resets and gas stops which provide an opportunity to combat overheating. It’s the Hare Scramble crowd that has their work cut out for them. Regardless, it’s important to take some measure to keep cool. I have assumed you are already fluent in life 101 and are properly hydrated prior to intense exercise. I will also assume that you are smart enough to train or practice in the conditions that you ride or race, whenever possible. Exercising at 6 am when it’s cool isn’t quite like racing at 1:00 during the hottest part of the day. In generally terms, it takes approximately two weeks of consistent running in the heat and humidity to acclimate to warmer conditions.
First off, try pre-cooling. Research suggests that athletes perform better in hot environments when they cool their bodies beforehand. Pre-cooling may not make a huge difference, but it can help gain a little edge in staving off the heat. If possible crank the AC in your vehicle or motor home or spend time in a cool bath tub or pond. Also, don’t drink too much prior to race day as over-hydration can lead to a problem called hyponatremia (low blood sodium). Sodium is a source of electrolytes and by flushing your body of them via over hydration; you are starting in a hole.
As the enduro is my preferred off-road discipline, I have the luxury of stops associated with a “gas available” and official gas stops where pit crews and supplies are available. One thing I like to do is keep an extra helmet liner soaked in cold water. When I pull into a gas stop, or if I have a chase vehicle, I will swap the sweat soaked helmet liner for one that’s been soaking in cool water. If I leave the extra helmet liner at home I will re-soak the one I am using. It helps. If I ride a HS, I will swap helmets and wear one that has had its helmet liner soaked in cold water.
Here’s the caveat though, water retains heat, so mounting soaked pads on your head and not swapping them out can work against you if you keep them in too long. Also, if you have vents in your helmet, make sure they are open so the heat can escape.
Here’s an interesting idea: I once saw a top national rider pull a gel cold pack (lightly wrapped in wet bandages) from his pants during a pit stop. He later admitted to keeping a lightly thawed gel back under his arm pits. It requires a bit of creative bandaging but he claimed it worked. When you overheat, guess where the EMT’s often apply cold packs, you guessed it, to your groin and arm pits. Whatever works, right?
We did a quick review on the cooling vest and in the right circumstances, it works. If you do a GP with 30 minute motos, this thing will be a gem for you. Even swapping it out during an enduro at a reset of gas stop will serve you well.
Do yourself a favor; don’t wear it under tight or restrictive clothing like one of those tight fitting Thor chest protectors that fits tightly to your body as air needs to move freely through the fibers. In fact, wear the most vented jersey you can find to maximize the effectiveness and swap the tight fitting chest protector for a traditional “cage” Yes, the vest can be a dust magnet but during a 30 minute woods moto or an enduro section, you should be fine.
Here’s yet another caveat, the cooling properties do not last as long as the manufacturer suggests. In my experience, after about 45 minutes of use in extremely hot weather, it can be counter productive. I have had mixed results with intense humidity as well. When it is exceedingly humid, I leave it off. Have an extra one to swap out at an enduro. Or if in a hurry, have someone pour cool water down your back as anything helps.
If you wear an under layer, make sure it has wicking properties. Any exterior clothing should be light in color.
Avoid cotton t-shirts and shorts since they’ll get sweaty, stay damp, and make you feel hotter. My black KTM gear is a heat sink.
In Situ Nutrition
Be selective on what you put into your body. Plain water is better than nothing but you can do you much better than that with products from Hammer Nutrition, Accelerade or Cytomax. Find out what works best for your body. I have buddies that swear by Hammer products, and I like them too. But it’s Cytomax that makes me feel the best. When you figure it out, fill your camelback with it and drink it cool, not cold, because the body absorbs cool water faster.
Lower your standards?
Nothing performs better in the extreme heat so don’t expect peak performance – your heart works harder and not as much blood is delivered to the working muscles. Unfortunately you need to be more efficient. Being efficient in his context means saving energy and not working as hard. No matter how much you dislike it, you are going to have to accept that maximum performance isn’t in the cards for you during the heat and humidity. Focus on sound technique rather than bulling your way through a course.
Riding in the heat and humidity is part of what we do. Taking a few basic precautions while focusing on riding more efficiently could be the difference between bonking 20 miles into a ride and finishing strong. Changing your program to address the heat can be a headache, but it sure beats the headache associated with heat illness. It’s worth it.