When to Drop Out of a Race Due to Heat

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Photo: TORWAISTUDIO (Shutterstock)

Throughout this brutally hot summer, I’ve been running a number of small road races (like one-milers and 5Ks), with the ultimate goal of competing in a half-marathon in October, and in my next full marathon in November 2023. These summer races have all sucked. It’s hot out there. Still, like most runners, I bristle at the thought of quitting. But how can you identify the point when it really is too unbearably hot to push yourself through a road race?

Inspired by my personal experiences, as well as this Reddit thread in which runners talk about their own breaking points, allow me to help you weigh the decision whether or not you should show up at the starting line of a race you know will be a real slog—or even harmful to your health. Whether this is your first organized race or you’re a stubborn veteran, here’s what to consider before you drop out of a race due to heat and humidity.

Know when it’s really too hot to run

Start by checking the guidelines meant for organizers of road races. If your race organizershave not yet canceled a race that’s set to take place in extreme conditions, then you can make the call for yourself to drop out.

If the race is still on but the organizershavecommunicated the option to transfer to a later date, take that as a sign that even the pros are expecting it to be a tough race. If this is the case, accept the fact that this is not going to be your opportunity to set a personal record.

If you’re going to run, run slow

Say let’s say the race is still on and you don’t want to take the option to transfer. Consider changing your race day mindset. There’s something to be said for treating this race more like a training run with extra perks. You’ve already paid to run, so why not run with hydration stations, cheerleaders, and a medal at the end?

Even when it’s challenging, it’s still possible to exercise safely in the heat. However, a race isn’t any other workout. When you pay to run, you want to run hard. In general, guidelines for running in the heat come down to exercising caution. On race day, bring extra fluids and electrolytes for your hydration breaks, and make sure to find places in the shade to cool off. This also means taking extra rests, paying more careful attention to your hydration, and toning down the overall intensity of your run. (That’s why managing your expectations beforehand should be a key part of your decision to run or not.)

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How to manage your expectations

It’s tough to resist the urge to speed up around other runners, whether or not you’re doing it on purpose. It’s important to be disciplined about keeping your pace slow. If you’re susceptible to the competitive spirit in the heat of the moment (no pun intended), here are some mental tips to keep your intensity level under control.

When it comes to managing your expectations, every runner is different. It sounds obvious, but your ability to run in the heat depends on how acclimated to it you are. Most Texans will be able to withstand a hot race better than the average Minnesotan. Check out the guidelines from the American College of Sports Medicine, but the major takeaway is that the less heat-acclimated you are, the slower you should go. Exercise caution, and know the signs and symptoms of heat exhaustion and heatstroke.

Be honest with yourself

Perhaps the biggest mental battle is granting yourself permission to DNF (shorthand for “did not finish”). Before you even get to the starting line, make the decision that you are allowed to drop out at any point. Pushing through extreme heat feels badass in the moment, but you could just be sabotaging yourself with heat exhaustion and heatstroke.

For most of us, running in the heat means slowing the hell down. Be honest with yourself—if you know you won’t be able to resist the urge to run hard, then maybe you shouldn’t risk running at all.

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