New Yorkers can leave their winter apparel tucked away a little longer. The city has been unusually warm this week, and Saturday and Sunday are expected to hit highs of over 70 degrees.
Sunday is also the day on which the prestigious TCS New York City marathon is scheduled to happen. It’s typical for the race’s temperatures to be in the 40s and 50s, with runners strategizing about how to stay toasty as they make their way to the starting line of the 50,000 person race in Staten Island. This year, they’ll be thinking about how to cool off while on the course.
Warm weather, in general, slows down the performance of marathon runners, according to a 2007 study published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. This is mainly due to the impact that higher environmental temperature has on the metabolism of runners, says Matthew Ely, the study’s first author, who is now a post-doc student at Harvard Medical School.
The harder you exercise, the more heat you produce. That extra heat needs to be let out of your body and into the environment. The temperature gradient between you and the environment is going to dictate how fast you can lose that heat. As the environmental temperature goes up, the temperature gradient between the environment and you goes down. And so you have a decreased ability to dissipate that heat, explains Ely, and therefore you go a little slower.
According to Ely, the optimal temperature for running a marathon is between 52 and 54 degrees, metabolism-wise. His study, which looked at race results from seven marathons over the span of several years, found that the race times of slow runners are even more impacted by heat than those of faster runners. This is because runners who are slow are exposed to high environmental temperatures for a longer period. Also, since most marathons start in the mornings, when the outside temperature is relatively cold, runners who finish quickly may not experience the hotter parts of the day.
However, Ely says that Sunday’s marathon runners are going to be all right health-wise, and needn’t worry too much about the warm weather. They just might feel a little uncomfortable. “We have the ability to dissipate a lot of heat through skin, blood flow, and sweating,” he says. The TCS New York City Marathon’s race director, Ted Metellus, says they have made robust arrangements for the runners to cope with heat during Sunday’s race. There will be nine misting stations on the race course, and water will be made available at all 28 race stations. They also will have 25 medical stations along the route. Metellus suggests that the runners wear light attire and hydrate early and often.
“We’ve had warm weather in the past that reached up into the mid-70s,” says Metellus. The last time they dealt with this high of a temperature was in the fall seasons of 1984 and 1985, when the temperatures hit around 74 degrees. According to Spectrum News 1, it’s been even warmer than that on race day, hitting 80 degrees in 1979. But those previous marathon-day highs all occurred a little earlier in the season, when the race was held in mid- to late October.
For places like New York that fall within the mid-latitude region of the planet, it’s not uncommon to experience year-to-year differences in what our November looks like, says James Booth, an atmospheric scientist and associate professor at the City College of New York. However, he says warmer temperatures, especially in the fall, are likely related to human-caused climate change.
“Our actions have consequences. And warm Novembers like these are going to occur more and more frequently, because of what we’re doing,” Booth emphasizes. Twenty years from now, a November New York marathon in the 70s might seem less unusual than it does today.
It’s too late this year for runners to make alterations to their training, but Ely has a suggestion for coping with unseasonably warm race days in the future. Starting 10 days before the race, start adding an extra layer of clothing to your usual running outfit. That will help acclimate you to a warmer microclimate within your clothes—when you cross the start line, you’ll be prepared to feel a little extra sweaty.