With the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run now only 16 days away, I'm in the throes of heat training. As most know, Western States is a very hot race, especially in the "canyons" section, and so it's key to go into the event ready to handle temps well in excess of 100 degrees. I'm coming from Colorado, where we had our signature cool spring. Unlike those coming from other areas of the country, our natural conditions until now (it's supposed to be 90 degrees today) have offered next to no opportunities for legitimate heat acclimatization.
With no real experience when it comes to formal heat training, I have used this great article by Badwater Ultramarathon legend Authur Webb as a guide. I have also sought some thoughtful advice from previous Western States finishers like AJ Wellman (2015 sub-24-hour finisher), Matt Curtis (2014 Grand Slam champ) and Andy Jones-Wilkins (10-time Western States finisher). As such, my heat training has focused on sauna sessions and some maintenance activities like--dare I say--driving home from work in the afternoon with the windows rolled up and vents off (I have been parking on the upper deck to get my car as hot as possible). With the weather in Denver finally starting to warm up, it will also likely involve a few afternoon runs. But sauna sessions are the centerpiece of the strategy as they are widely considered a "best practice" for Western States training (not to sound corporate).
Going into my Western States build up, while I knew sauna time would be a critical aspect, I didn't realize how physically hard it would be. The actual time in the sauna isn't what's so hard; it's how I feel the next day. More on that in a second. When I go into the sauna, it's always with about 50-60 ounces of ice-cold water in hand. And I always make a point to drink both bottles while in the hot box. I try to pace myself so that I'm drinking at an even rate for the whole time in the sauna and take that last sip just seconds before leaving. I also make a point to take an S!Cap afterward to help replace lost electrolytes, and I have found that the S!Cap does make a difference.
How long am I in there? Anywhere from 28-33 minutes at this stage. I originally wanted to build up to a 40-minute session but I honestly cannot conceive of how that might make me feel the next day. Such times as 28-33 minutes in the sauna are way out of the norm when you're looking at the "general population." Having watched a lot of people come in and out of the hot box over the past few weeks (this has offered its fair share of humor, too), I can say that the average session for folks is 4-8 minutes. No one stays in the sauna for a half-hour or even close to it. People have been incredulous when they saw how much I was sweating and asked how long I'd been in the sauna. Never mind what they say when I tell them why I'm doing this. It's all way out of the norm. And so I tell myself that, yes, this should be hard...because it is hard.
As an aside, despite the growth in ultrarunning over the past few years, we should never lose sight of how out of the norm it is to do what we do. It's easy to forget that fact because, for most of us, our friends are also ultrarunners. But the bottom line is that 99.99% of the population has no interest in lining up for an ultra. They cannot conceive of it.
Why am I finding it so hard to sauna train? I have found that the next day I usually struggle with headaches, mild dizziness and general fogginess. Occasionally it feels like a bad hangover. Sometimes it can be draining. The mild dizziness usually clears up in a day or two but it's no fun.
Having spoken with others, it seems this is all part of the process. Heat training is hard and fatiguing and that's why many Western States runners save it for the final stages. I started a week before my taper kicked in and it was hard to balance it all. So I did what I could and now am trying to get to at least 10-12 sessions by the time I'm four days from the race, when it's all behind me. While I have truly loved the build-up to Western States, the sauna training aspect has been much harder than I anticipated. I cannot imagine what Badwater heat training would call for!
If you have any heat/sauna training tips, chime in!