The course for Lavaman Triathlon on Hawaii's Big Island winds over sandy beaches, down a treeless highway, and -- you guessed it -- lava rock in 90-degree temps. It was my first race of the year, and I knew I was in for quite a rude awakening. For the past six months, I'd trained for the Olympic-distance event in near-freezing New York conditions. Besides hitting the sauna at the gym, I'd done little to prepare myself for the sweltering weather ahead of me.
Worried about burning out and getting sick (as I did in a triathlon last summer), I turned to the experts for their advice on how to handle the heat. Here are their top tips to help you keep your cool:
1. Pre-heat your training. It takes at least two weeks for your body to learn how to properly cool down in hotter temps. So schedule at least one workout a week for mid-day, when it's warmest, to get acclimated. "You want to simulate the race environment as much as possible," said Gerry Rott, Lavaman's race director.
2. H20-load. If you're not properly hydrated leading up to race day, it's already too late, said Molly Balfe, a USA Triathlon-certified coach based in Brooklyn, N.Y. "So carry a water bottle everywhere you go the week beforehand, and sip frequently."
On the morning of the event, chug 16 to 20 ounces of fluid one to two hours before the start. "That should give you a good base while giving you enough time to go to the bathroom," said Julie Upton, R.D., a Bay Area-based certified sports nutritionist and ultra-marathon runner. Then gulp six to eight ounces every 15 to 20 minutes on the course; set an alarm on your watch to beep at regular intervals as a reminder. No aid stations or water fountains on your route? Carry a hand-held bottle, hydration pack or fuel belt.
3. Pump up the electrolytes. Along with water, you lose magnesium, potassium and salt when you sweat. "Your body uses these electrolytes to regulate fluids," Upton said. "So a dip in levels can lead to dehydration." That's why pro triathlete and Lavaman champion Bree Wee drinks potassium-rich coconut water, and sprinkles Pacific sea salt on her meals in the week leading up to a big event. (If you're not training or racing hours on end, Upton said there's no need to bump up your sodium intake.) You should also replace electrolytes with some form of sports drink, gel or tablet during each hour of exercise. Test out products and work one into your usual routine.
4. Dress the part. Take it all off? Not if you want to chill out. White or light-colored clothes made from technical fabrics, such as those in the Nike Dri-FIT, Adidas CLIMACOOL and Brooks HVAC lines, wick away sweat to keep you cool and dry. "Also choose a light-colored mesh hat instead of a visor," said Miriam Weiskind, a blogger for Trissential.com, who placed third in her age group at Lavaman. "It prevents your hair from absorbing the sun's heat."
For even more protection, consider cooling sleeves. When runners wore one of these breathable fabric tubes during a 30-minute outdoor jog, their shielded arm remained 3 degrees cooler than the other, reports researchers from the Montana Center for Work Physiology and Exercise Metabolism. Brands to try: CEP and Craft .
5. Cool your jets. The higher your body's core temperature, the harder your workout. To lower that internal thermostat, sip an icy drink or half-frozen Gatorade. According to a 2010 New Zealand study, athletes who downed a "slushie" lasted longer during a sweltering run than those who had cold water.
During the race itself, cool off with ice from the aid stations. "Put a cube in your sports bra, in the back pocket of your jersey, under your hat or down the back of your shorts -- or just hold it in your hands for a few seconds," Wee said. Dumping water (not a sports drink!) over your head can also bring down your temperature. On long runs, Weiskind often carries a small sponge to douse in cold water and stuff down the front of her top between stations.
7. Finish strong. "We see the most people in need of medical attention at the finish line," Rott said. "In my experience, that's when heat affects athletes -- after that last burst of energy and their adrenaline stops pumping." The first thing you should do after pumping your arms in victory? Chug a bottle of water. At Lavaman, participants are given a cold gel pack to lower their body temperature, but you can get the same effect by wrapping a cold, wet towel around your neck.
8. Know when to slow down. The first few times you're out in really hot weather, take it easy and don't push yourself as hard as you usually do. Most important, know the warning signs of dehydration and overheating: If you start to feel weak, dizzy, or nauseous, find some shade and get fluids immediately.