Hydration Recommendations for Athletes

With temperatures rising and outdoor activities starting to increase, I figured it would be a good time to go over the recommendations for proper hydration for sports activities.  This is especially important for young athletes as they have a harder time dissipating heat and usually don’t fully understand the importance of hydration (or listen to adults).  And remember, dehydration isn’t limited to only during warm weather.  In fact, most people probably live their everyday lives in a mild state of dehydration – if you don’t drink 2-3 liters of water per day, you’re probably one of these people.
Dehydration should not be taken lightly as it causes a decrease in athletic performance and can potentially lead to more serious health issues (including life-threatening heat stroke).  The second leading cause of sudden death in athletes is exertional heat stroke (to which dehydration can play a large role).  Dehydration and sodium losses are also primary factors in exertional heat cramps (which will knock you right out of a game/competition).  Dehydration of as little as 1-2% of body weight has a negative impact on performance – both physical and mental.  Dehydration of 3% or more and you increase the risk of developing an exertional heat illness (heat cramps, heat exhaustion, heat stroke).  Some of the things dehydration can cause are:
  • increase in core body temp
    • for every 1% dehydration, there is approximately a .5 degree rise in core body temp
  • impaired concentration/judgment
  • reduced aerobic capacity
  • decreased strength
  • slower reaction times
  • increase in heart rate
  • increase production of cortisol (the “stress” hormone)
  • inability for muscle cells to repair themselves after training/playing
I’m pretty sure you don’t want any of those things, so how do you know if you are dehydrated?  Here are some of the signs of dehydration:
  • darker color urine
  • urinating less frequently and/or urinating an amount less than usual
  • dry mouth/lips
  • lack of energy
  • irritable
  • thirst
I made it a point to write thirst last because it is usually the last sign that you need to drink something.  If you’re thirsty, you are most likely already in a state of dehydration.  And when you are really dehydrated, the thirst mechanism doesn’t even work properly.

dehydrationMost dehydration problems are a result of a cumulative dehydration (not a single event/day), meaning someone did not replenish their water requirements after an athletic event/practice for a few days in a row.  This cumulative dehydration is commonly overlooked and not recognized until it’s too late.
The best way to treat dehydration is to prevent it in the first place.  In general, you should be regularly drinking water throughout the day, but there are also some general recommendations for proper hydration before/during/after athletic participation (games, practices, training sessions, etc).  The amounts may vary depending on many different factors – length of activity, temperature, humidity, intensity of activity, clothing/equipment, etc., so adjust accordingly.  You can get a little crazy if you get really in-depth into hydrating (i.e. supplements, “designer waters”, etc), but I don’t think you should even be going down that road if you haven’t covered the basics first.  Here are the basic recommendations for hydrating around athletic participation:
  • Before: 16 oz (.5 L) of water two hours before athletic activity
  • During: approximately 6-8 oz of water every 15-20 minutes during activity (1 large gulp is about 1 oz)
  • After: drink 16 oz of water for every pound lost
    • example: if you weigh 2 pounds less after your practice/game, you need to drink 32 oz of water to replenish your water loss
Now, while plain water is a good source of hydration, it may not be the best fluid to hydrate with.  Bottled water and filtered tap water typically have many of the minerals removed from them, thus not providing you with the necessary electrolytes for proper hydration.  Just because you drink a lot of water, doesn’t mean your body is absorbing it – this is why some people urinate more frequently when they start drinking more water.  Adding a pinch of sea salt to water re-adds many of the missing minerals and it also improves its absorption.  Important note – do not add table salt to water thinking it will have the same effect – it does not because this type of salt has been heavily processed and stripped of most of its minerals.  And contrary to popular belief, sea salt will not make you more thirsty (table salt will make you feel thirsty though).
I also can’t talk about hydration recommendations without discussing sports drinks (Gatorade, Powerade, etc.).  Sports drinks are different from water in that they contain carbohydrates (the main difference), minerals (electrolytes), and flavor.  While water is the preferred choice for hydration, there can be a time and place for sports drinks.  Reasons you might choose a sports drink are:
  • if your activity will last longer than 60 minutes (the primary reason for choosing sports drinks)
    • this is due to sports drinks having carbohydrates in them that will help replenish your depleted glucose stores
  • if you have been labeled a “salty sweater” (meaning your sweat tends to have more electrolytes in it), then mixing in a sports drink instead of water may be beneficial
  • if you don’t like drinking plain water, then sports drinks can encourage drinking fluids because they taste better
The sugars in sports drinks may upset some people’s stomachs, so be mindful of that.  If they do bother your stomach, try diluting the sports drink or use water with a pinch of sea salt.
Quick Summary
  • Maintaining hydration will:
    • improve performance
    • improve recovery
    • help prevent heat illnesses
    • help prevent soft tissue injuries
  • In addition to regularly drinking water throughout the day, the following recommendations are used around athletic participation:
    • 16 oz of water two hours before activity
    • weigh yourself before activity
    • 6-8 oz of water every 15-20 minutes during activity
    • weigh yourself after activity & drink 16 oz of water for every pound you lost
    • adding a pinch of sea salt to water is more beneficial than bottled/filtered water as it provides valuable minerals (electrolytes) and helps with absorption

via Dennis Treubig, Modern Sports PT


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