Managing hydration is one of the most crucial elements of performance and training, and it’s something that seems to be commonly misunderstood. Staying properly hydrated is often grossly oversimplified; reduced to “just drink more water” by the minimalists among us. On the other hand, folks from the sport drink, energy fuel, and fitness industries are always trying to convince us that water can’t do the job – that lab-made products with page after page explaining physiological interactions are worth $20 a bottle.
The reality is somewhere in between! Water alone will not rehydrate your body to a healthy extent, but with a healthy, varied diet, consistent drinking habits, and the occasional electrolyte boost, you shouldn’t need any miracle hydration techniques. In fact, the ability to know when your body is hydrated or dehydrated is far more helpful!
Here are some key hydration tips for the when, why, and how of replenishing your body’s fluids.
Drink Early and Often
We’ll touch on sports drinks and electrolytes later, but even if you decide to use performance beverages, you still need water too! The easiest way to maintain your hydration while training is to start early and practice good hydration 24/7. You’ll be able to maximize your performance by ensuring that you start off well-hydrated, rather than just worrying about re-hydrating after the fact.
Research suggests that 16-24 ounces of water should be consumed around two hours before the start of a training session or event. Think of this as your base coat! Once you’re underway, pay attention to your body (we’ll cover tips on how to do this towards the end of the article), as every athlete has unique hydration needs and responses during a performance. Keep your water intake balanced, and don’t chug down bottles of water just because you’re hot and sweaty!
For endurance sessions, try a few small sips of water every 10 minutes or so. Shorter, more intense exertions might benefit from longer, but fewer water breaks – split your session and take a 15 minute halftime to drink 8-16 ounces of water and do some stretching before tackling the rest of your workout. Don’t stop drinking just because you’re done sweating! After a workout, continue to drink 8-16 ounces of water every hour for 2-3 hours. For a more precise understanding of your post-workout fluid needs, you can use your body weight. Measure your weight before and after a workout to gauge the amount of fluid lost during exercise. For each pound lost, aim to replenish your body with 24 ounces of water/sports drink. If you gained weight while working out, you are likely overhydrating – try to drink less during, and focus on replenishing after.
Electrolytes are essential minerals that are vital to your body’s regular functions, and particularly for athletes in pursuit of peak performance. Electrolytes you’ll recognize include sodium, potassium, and magnesium – found most commonly in the food you eat, not sports drinks! Electrolytes have a ton of responsibilities, but most importantly, they help to regulate the fluid levels and pH balance in your body by retaining or releasing the fluid you take in. So it makes sense that they’re so important to the hydration conversation! These minerals also contribute to the construction of new tissue and the ability for muscles to contract.
For low-intensity or shorter workouts, you’ll be fine with drinking water and getting a normal amount of electrolytes from your diet. If you’re training hard, you might benefit from seeking out electrolyte-rich foods and beverages – most fruits and vegetables are naturally hydrating, while also being packed with vitamins and important minerals. Yogurt is another great snack, including a dose of protein to go along with the fluid present. You can think of coconut water, or even 100% fruit juice, as being a natural version of a sports drink – a ton of water, simple carbs, and naturally occurring electrolytes.
If you’re a hardcore athlete training for peak performance and pushing your body to the limits, don’t feel like you can’t reach for a sports drink or specially designed recovery beverage. This is where “water isn’t enough” becomes true, but just do the research and know what you’re drinking! Consider looking into blood osmolality and mOsm/kg values to ensure your go-to drinks are promoting hydration, try to avoid fructose and maltodextrin in favor of glucose and sucrose, and work with a sports dietitian (or a PKRS Nutritionist) to perfect the science of hydration!
As mentioned above, it’s arguably more important to be able to assess your hydration levels rather than having a magical silver bullet of hydration. You’re probably familiar with most of these, but you’d be surprised at how often they get ignored! It’s easy to forget about hydration until you begin to feel poorly, so checking in with some of these methods can help keep your fluid balance in a good place at all times.
The thirst mechanism in our bodies is not exactly perfect, but it’s a good bottom line; drink small amounts when you feel mild thirst or a dry mouth, and don’t wait to be totally parched to then chug a bottle of water. Urine is an obvious indicator of hydration, with the optimal shade being a pale yellow. Darker urine indicates dehydration, but consider checking the web for a guide to check colors – there’s even an app for it!
You can also try the pinch test; use your thumb and pointer finger to gently pinch the skin on the back of your hand and hold it for a few seconds. If you’re properly hydrated, the skin should snap back to its normal shape almost instantly – a delay indicates dehydration. This is because the elasticity, or turgor, of your skin can drastically lessen during fluid loss.
And finally, just listen to your body! Muscle fatigue, dizziness, and lightheadedness are all indicators of dehydration. While we understand the temptation to push out one more set or knock out one more mile, know that it’s ok to stop, breathe, rehydrate, and get back after it in 15 minutes. Your body will thank you!
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