Running through the elements – where biology meets meteorology

With the heat having taken its toll on a British runner at the Commonwealth Games, those training for the London Marathon will be keeping a close eye on the forecast ahead of Sunday’s event. Long-time runner John gives us his personal perspective on how the elements can affect joggers and elite runners alike.


I’m a runner. For over 30 years I have trudged the highways and byways; and although my action has latterly become more of a plod, I’ve never really been that hung up on my speed. I find running therapeutic – a time of rhythmic contemplation.

Calves and achilles have been my injuries of ‘choice’ over the years; but ask most runners and they’ll normally have their own favourite ‘niggle’ for which the gods have singled them out. I’ll find you a runner and they’ll show you an injury.

The one element to performance whose influence is rather more democratic is the weather. And we runners have every type of weather thrown at us too.

… give us a steady drizzle any time

We come in all shapes and sizes but no runner likes the wind. A gentle breeze can have a pleasant cooling effect as the miles pass by. It helps to evaporate the sweat and acts as a sublte regulator on body temperature. A tail wind is lovely, but we all have to turn the comer and head back home eventually. Running into the teeth of a strong and gusty wind (say, anything above about 15mph) can really knock us off our stride. Indeed, running through air which is moving in the opposite direction can feel like a case of two step forwards and one step back.

The main enemy to long-distance runners is overheating and dehydration. We sweat to remove excess heat from the body. But on humid days, with little wind, evaporation into the atmosphere is less than efficient and, with time, as the miles tick by, the body is prone to overheating, especially in direct sunshine. On the other hand, if we fail to drink as much as we lose in sweat, then dehydration can become a serious problem – especially for marathon runners. Loading up with water, energy drinks or gels are a must for those really long runs (of 10 miles or more). Why? Because it’s not just water we lose from our bodies through sweat. Electrolytes can rapidly become depleted with debilitating effect – hence the notorious ‘wall’ that many under-prepared runners are known to suddenly hit.

On the subject of water – what about rain? We love it! Well, perhaps not torrential cloudbursts that cause ankle-deep puddles and ‘jetwashing’ from passing vehicles; but give us a steady drizzle any time. The cooling effect on the skin works wonderfully well to help keep body temperature down.

Of course, temperatures can be too low, especially for the hands, which on freezing days, can struggle to warm up without gloves. But otherwise, after a ‘bracing’ few minutes to start, the body soon generates enough heat to counter the chilly air. Call me odd, but I always wear shorts – even on the bitterest winter days.

So, my ideal weather for running? A fresh day with temperatures somewhere between 5 and 20C. Mainly cloudy skies, with an absence of prolonged and harsh sunshine. A drizzly shower would be a bonus. And  to top it off – a light breeze – neither calm nor blustery. Actually, if you think about it, that’s the sort of weather we get for much of the year. Nothing too extreme. Maybe that’s why the UK has a proud record of middle and long distance running – the elements are all cut out for us!

And my ideal clothing? Lightweight and breathable fabrics are the key. Perhaps a layer or two more in the winter, and even some gloves for those bitter days. But in general, over-dressing will cause you more problems than under-dressing.

If all else fails – slow down. After all, plodding works for me.