As an athlete, you have your own routine and rituals before, during, and after physical activity. You stretch, foam roll, get warmed up and get mentally prepared for your upcoming performance. But as an athlete, it is important for you to also not overlook the simple component of peak performance; hydration.

Hydration is a very simple, yet incredibly important factor that can make or break your performance if not taken seriously. While proper hydration can help maintain performance, lack of hydration can cause dehydration which causes a plethora of issues in and of itself. Understanding how much to hydrate, when to hydrate and how to avoid symptoms of dehydration can help you perform at your peak.

When and How Much to Drink?

Maintaining hydration during exercise helps replenish fluids that your body loses when sweating. But the key to proper hydration is when to drink and how much you should drink to maintain performance and stay healthy.

The American Council of Exercise recommends drinking 17 to 20 ounces / 500 to 550 ml of water 2 to 3 hours before exercise. Furthermore, while exercising, drinking 7 to 10 ounces / 200 tp 300 ml of water every 20 to 30 minutes can be beneficial in maintaining hydration without feeling full. As anyone can attest, working out with a stomach full of water can be uncomfortable and detrimental to performance.

Also, it is helpful to weigh yourself without clothes before and after a typical workout. If your weight changes more than two percent of your starting weight, you should plan to drink more water throughout your workout in the future. This is helpful when doing more strenuous exercises where more fluids are typically lost.

Dehydration: Causes and symptoms

As you exercise, you are losing electrolytes and other helpful nutrients in your sweat. If you do not replenish these fluids by drinking water or a sports drink, you can develop symptoms of dehydration. Common symptoms of dehydration include:

  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Muscle Cramps
  • Vomiting
  • Nausea
  • Lack of sweating

More serious symptoms of dehydration include:

  • Weakness
  • Confusion
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Death (in severe cases)

Dehydration Shouldn’t Be Your Only Concern

As you exercise, sweat works like a refrigerator and cools your body down. Lack of hydration and continued exposure too hot or humid conditions during exercise can lead to heat illness. Symptoms of heat illness are medical emergencies and should be addressed immediately. The three stages of heat illness are:

  • Heat cramps- painful cramps in the stomach, back, arms and legs
  • Heat exhaustion- weakness, fatigue, confusion, increased heart rate
  • Heatstroke- the most severe stage, confusion, increased heart rate, quick/shallow breathing, flushed skin. During heat stroke, internal body temperature is 104 degrees or higher and will need immediate medical attention.

TAKE ACTION

If you or a teammate, exercise partner, or even a stranger at the gym appear to be showing symptoms of dehydration, they can lead to heat exhaustion quickly if not addressed. These guidelines can help save individuals from succumbing to dehydration or heat illness symptoms:

  • Remove from the warm environment if outside in hot/humid weather-Those experiencing dehydration/heat illness symptoms need to be removed from a hot/humid environment and placed in a cool shaded area as soon as possible.
  • Remove excess clothing
  • Ice packs-placing ice packs in armpits, groin, behind the neck and back, can cool down the body and lower internal temperature
  • REHYDRATE

Can You Drink Too Much Water?

During exercise, your body will produce sweat in order to cool itself down (through evaporation of fluids), but the fluids you lose contain electrolytes like sodium, potassium, and chloride. Sodium itself will help maintain water balance within the body. However, if the intake of water is greater than the amount of fluid lost, sodium can be diluted to low levels not recommended for the human body. The low levels of sodium within the body can develop into hyponatremia. Common symptoms of dehydration can also be seen in cases of hyponatremia, these include:

  • Low energy or fatigue
  • Headache
  • Confusion
  • Irritability
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Muscle Cramps

Who Is at Risk for Hyponatremia?

While hyponatremia may be more associated with those exercising and failing to properly replenish fluids lost, there are several factors not related to exercise that can cause low blood sodium. These include:

  • Old Age
  • Elite-level athletes
  • Those who live in a warmer climate
  • Those who exercise in a warm, humid environment
  • Diuretic use
  • Low sodium diet
  • Antidepressant use

What About Sports Drinks?

While water intake is important to reduce the risk of symptoms of dehydration, simply drinking water does not replenish the electrolytes lost during intense activity. For physical activity lasting longer than an hour, sports drinks can be another remedy to replenish lost electrolytes.

These sports drinks contain large amounts of calories, sodium, sugars, and other electrolytes that can help improve performance. Sports drinks can help provide an added boost of energy while replenishing fluids needed to finish strong. However, while sports drinks can be helpful to replenish lost electrolytes, it is important to note the amount of sugars, carbohydrates, and other electrolytes in the drink.

Understanding your calorie needs and goals can help you better choose what kind of sports drink is right for you. By diluting sports drinks with water, you provide your body with the electrolyte replacement and fluid reabsorption needed to maintain performance and improve recovery.

What You Should Know as an Athletes

For individuals more inclined to be involved in a rigorous training schedule, maintaining proper hydration is a vital component of their training and recovery. Helpful tips for athletes to maintain proper hydration include:

  • Follow a hydration plan- maintain proper hydration before, during and after physical activity
  • Monitor fluid loss- weighing yourself before and after physical activity can determine how much fluid you lose. For every pound lost during activity, replenish with 20-24 ounces / 600 to 700 ml of water following activity.
  • Listen to your body- pay attention to signs of dehydration like thirst, fatigue, muscle cramps, nausea/vomiting, or dizziness. By recognizing what these signs are, you can better prepare yourself to combat them and recover.
  • Know when you need a sports drink- physical activity lasting longer than an hour is typically when sports are more effective in replenishing fluids and electrolytes lost. However, it is important to research what sports drink is right for you beforehand.
  • Drink when you’re thirsty, not to get full- when you’re exercising, it is important to take hydration breaks to combat thirst. But it is important to only drink enough to satiate thirst instead of overdrinking. This can cause discomfort during exercise.

Bottom Line, Listen to Your Body

If you’re running a marathon, doing a HIIT circuit, or doing a home workout in between Netflix binges, making hydration a part of your routine is simple. You need to listen to your body.

If you’re feeling thirsty during your workout, take the time to replenish the fluids you have lost. Whether it is water or a sports drink, replenishing lost fluids can reduce your chances of dehydration, and improve your performance and recovery.