Importance of Hydration for Athletes
Hydration Tips for Athletes and Hydration Tips for Youth Athletes
If you’re an athlete, you’ve probably heard a lot about the importance of hydration for athletes, from coaches to parents to friends and even social media.
The big question is what exactly is hydration? What does it entail? How much water should I drink and are any of the electrolyte replacement products like Liquid IV worth it?
If any of these questions have popped up in your head or in conversations around training, you’re in the right place for an overview of proper hydration.
In this blog we will go over what exactly is hydration, what causes dehydration and how you can make sure you are hydrating properly. We will also look a little deeper into rehydration products like Gatorade and Liquid IV.
Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. This means I earn a percentage of any sales made through those links, at no extra cost to you. Affiliate links are identified with an asterisk (*).
What is hydration?
Definitions of hydration can vary slightly depending on the source, but the general agreement is to hydrate is to add or absorb water. Seems simple enough, right? Then why are there so many products popping up that promise better hydration than water? Are they telling the truth or is water the best bet?
Terms to Know About the Importance of Hydration for Athletes
I wanted to take a quick second to go over some of the terms that pop up with hydration and highlight some of the big ones that will be used in this article and that will pop up throughout the career of an athlete.
First, let’s get on the same page about hydration status. There are six major terms that come up and some of them often get used interchangeably, but they do mean slightly different things. The three most familiar terms are likely:
- Hydration which is the process of making the body absorb (gain or lose) water
- Dehydration or the process of losing water
- Rehydration, the process of gaining water
Their similar counterparts that don’t get used enough are:
- Euhydrated which is the optimal state of water retention for the body (often called being hydrated)
- Hypohydrated the end state after dehydration or low body water
You can be hyperhydrated (or hyponatremia), which is the end state after excessive rehydration or excessive body water. This is pretty tough to do for most athletes except some heavy endurance sports. It typically has more to do with lack of electrolyte consumption than drinking too much water.
What causes dehydration?
Why should I care about the importance of hydration for athletes? If you don’t get enough fluids, that can lead to Dehydration, or becoming hypohydrated. This happens when the body loses more fluid than is replaced. The body loses fluids from three main avenues: sweat, urine, and breath. These can be tricky to monitor as everyone has different rates of fluid loss.
Breath has the least amount of impact on dehydration as it’s solely from the moisturization of air moving in and out of the body. It is the main cause of hydration shifts during sleep and changes in climate (like flying on an airplane).
Urine can account for a range from 800 mL to 2 liters (2,000 mL) of water loss daily. It’s tough to measure accurately how much, but there are strategies to account for this when talking about hydrating properly.
Sweat is the major player in athletic dehydration and is fortunately the easiest to monitor. Athletes have different rates of sweating depending on their size, climate, and individual differences. The best way to track this is to take a pre and post workout weight. If you didn’t lose liquid in another way (like going to the bathroom) it’s safe to assume the difference in pre and post workout weights is your water loss via sweat! If you aren’t keen on seeing your weights that often, talk to a coach or parent about taking blind weights so you don’t have to see them.
What are the side effects of dehydration?
When our body dehydrates it can and will lose water from a variety of locations. The two main sources of water loss come from: blood and muscle.
When we lose water from the blood, two things occur: the blood volume lowers and the blood becomes more concentrated with blood cells, sugars, proteins, etc. This causes the heart to have to work harder to deliver oxygen and blood through the system.
The water loss from the muscle affects our muscles ability to contract and relax. Most things in the body run on small electrical currents powered by our nervous system. Since water is a valuable conductor for the flow of electricity, less water means less electrical power.
These two elements combined cause major reductions in athletic performance. A 1-2% reduction in body weight from water loss, which is defined as mild to moderate dehydration, can result in a 15% or greater reduction in performance (power, speed, recovery).
Dehydration also causes tiredness, headaches, dizziness, and dry mouth. Not directly tied to athletic performance but can certainly affect your ability to perform!
How do I hydrate properly?
So, now we know the side effects of dehydration. Now we aim to learn how to hydrate properly. There are two goals with hydration routines: (1) prevent dehydration and (2) rehydration.
A lot of strategies are targeted at trying not to become hypohydrated, but dehydration is inevitable in athletes. Simply put, the amount of fluid we lose is more than the amount of fluid we can take in during practice and performance. So, goal two is to minimize that and rehydrate after performances.
While there are three major sources of fluid loss, there are only 2 sources of fluid gain: our mouth and an IV.
Using an IV for fluid gain is reserved for severe, life threatening hypohydration, so that leaves us with only one option. Consuming fluid is our only consistent source of hydration, so it pays to develop a solid routine and a great diet to maintain optimal hydration status, or euhydration.
The bulk of our fluid intake is going to come from drinking it, but we can obtain a considerable amount of fluid from foods with high water content like fruits and vegetables. There will be another post on the benefits of fruits and veggies in the athletic diet, but incorporating them as part of each meal and snack can aid in your hydration!
You may have noticed by now that I tend to use the word fluid in place of water. This is because they are not quite the same. All of the fluids we drink are primarily composed of water, but water may not be the ultimate choice for athletic hydration!
Water vs ORS
When we’re talking about the importance of hydration for athletes, water is often seen as the ultimate beverage of choice. But there may actually be better choices for staying hydrated and rehydration techniques during and after performances.
Oral Rehydration Solutions were designed to help the body absorb water optimally and this happens in three major areas:
1.You simply drink more because it tastes good. Despite claims by companies like Liquid IV, the major effect that products in this realm achieve is increased overall consumption.
2. The sodium in ORS triggers the body to increase its thirst response and decrease its urinary output. This is the exact opposite of water which turns off the thirst response and increases urinary output.
3. The ORS will activate something called the sodium-glucose cotransport system. This allows the body to draw in more water than a beverage lacking sodium and sugar. This is inline with claims from ORS companies like Liquid IV that they can help you hydrate faster and more efficiently than water alone.
Winner: ORS will help you stay hydrated and rehydrate during and after sports performances than just water.
Sipping vs Chugging
You might be wondering, does sipping or chugging help you stay hydrated better?
If you are worried about the importance of hydration for athletes, chugging water may seem like the better way to get enough fluids. However, experts have examined the best way to maintain hydration and sipping water throughout the day. Sipping showed better water retention while chugging water showed an increased urinary output and less water was consumed overall.
When drinking large amounts of plain water, your body will turn off your thirst response and try to eliminate the excess water quickly.
Winner: SIPPING water throughout the day and during your workout will help you stay hydrated better than chugging a lot of water all at once.
When to use which drink? What options are out there?
High sugar, low sugar, no sugar, Gatorade, Liquid IV. The options seem endless. How do you pick which one and when to use them? Below are some guidelines but ultimately to come up with something customized and optimized, meeting with a sports dietitian is the way to go.
While I did just spend the last few pages going over the benefits of electrolytes and water not technically being the best, I want to clarify that water is still a top tier beverage when it comes to the importance of hydration for athletes. Without this pivotal ingredient none of this is possible. Heck, 60-70% of our body is water. That arguably makes it the most important piece of the puzzle, but the goal of sports nutrition is optimization. We want to do what’s best for performance!
The best overall practice is to sip water throughout the day. Roughly ½ your body weight in ounces is a good target for daily water intake (140 lbs soccer player should drink at least 70 oz water daily).
Optimal times to use the ORS will be surrounding exercise or times you’re most likely to drink larger volumes and want to retain more water and prevent increased urination. Drinking an ORS pre, during, and post practice is a good start. I also like to drink some in my evening water to prevent night time trips to the bathroom.
Finally, going for the higher sugar stuff is ideal when hydration isn’t the ONLY focus. There will be blogs on fueling and recovery to dive more into this, but if energy is needed for activity go for a higher carb count. Topping off the tank before a practice or replenishing used energy during practices and games is a good start.
Options for Hydration Products
It’s important to make the right choice. Getting fluid and sugars from food products is a safe choice because they are regulated by the FDA. Whole foods and juices fall into this category. Learning to read labels accurately really helps.
This is especially important because higher levels of athletic leagues (NCAA, professional leagues) test for banned substances which can find their way into supplements. Products like Gatorade and Powerade are considered foods that are regulated by the FDA. Powders and packets often fall into the supplement category. Check the label for a claim that the FDA did NOT evaluate the product. If that claim doesn’t make an appearance and there is a nutrition facts label, you’re good to go.