Extreme heat workouts: Do they work?

The number of ‘hot yoga’ and bikram classes are seemingly on the up in the UK in recent years. The heat-based exercise sessions take traditional yoga up a notch, exposing individuals to temperatures between 35 and 40 degrees celsius. But how do these extreme temperature workouts affect the body?

When the body is exposed to heat, it’s internal cooling system kicks into gear. To help deal with a rise in core temperature your body will send more blood into circulation through your skin to allow sweating, in order to cool you down. However, with this increase in blood needed to deal with the temperature increase, you are left with less blood to see to the needs of the muscles you are working.

This, in turn, leads to your heart having to work harder in order to circulate more blood around your body when exercising in higher temperatures.

However, while that may sound worrying (and there are some things to be cautious off), working out while exposed to heat can have a positive effect.

Exercising in cooler temperatures does allow your body to regulate temperatures better, meaning a longer and more sustained workout. However, once acclimatised to working at temperatures, your body is able to go beyond it’s previous limits.

A study in 2010 by the University of Oregon investigated the effect heat has on the body. The results were interesting in that although it didn’t show an immediate benefit to high temperature exercise, in the long run there was an improvement.

Led by Professor Chris Minson, the study put two groups of competitive cyclists to work. One group trained in temperatures hovering around 13 degrees celsius, while the others rode in 38 degree heat.

The two were then brought together for a ride at an intermediate temperature. In his findings Minson discovered that those that had been training at warmer temperatures rode on average 6% faster and produced 5% more aerobic power.

He suggested that by training in higher temperatures, cyclists were able to increase blood plasma levels, in turn, delivering more oxygen around the body. As well as this, he also found that athletes were better equipped to regulate their core temperature.

Words of warning

Although this research suggests heat training is a no-brainer for those looking to improve their output, there are things to remember.

Firstly, is your own safety. Overheating is a serious issue and can be a real health risk. If you intend to work-out in high temperatures remember to keep yourself well-hydrated. With the body’s cooling system working overtime you are likely to lose a lot of fluid through sweating, so keeping your water levels topped up is vital.

Exercise in high heat
Don’t expect to see an immediate improvement in your performance after one session either. Your body will need to acclimatise to exercising in high temperatures before the positive effects will be felt. Training while exposed to heat over a period of days could see incremental improvements in your body’s tolerance to heat. Eventually your body will more effectively be able to dissipate heat more effectively, without affecting performance.

Everyone is different, so it’s important not to expect to see huge improvements, but there is evidence that heat training can work. Just remember to take the obvious precautions before hand; wear lose fitting clothing, keep well hydrated and take time out if you start to feel dizzy or nauseous.