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A Runner’s and Athlete’s Guide to Staying Hydrated

A Runner’s and Athlete’s Guide to Staying Hydrated


Every athlete and runner knows hydration is important – not only is it dehydration and its less acknowledged sibling, hyponatremia (also known as overhydration) dangerous, but they are far more common than people realize, mostly due to confusion on the proper ways to stay hydrated.

The symptoms of both can be frightening – and life threatening in extreme cases. Robert Sallis, who is a medical director for the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii is fighting to change the common understanding and beliefs about proper hydration when running and participating in sports – and went so far as say any advice on “functional dehydration,” is “stupid” in a recent article published in Outside Online.  While the theory has a long history that dates back to the 1960s, people who subscribe to this idea seem to forget include the deaths (attributed to heat stroke) of two of the major proponents of it, Tommy Simpson, a Tour de France rider and Jim Peters, a marathon runner.

We’ll just file that under “junk science” – and even that term is polite, as neither man was a scientist or a doctor, and their views were always considered somewhat extreme.

Part of the reason that people were even considering intentionally under-hydrating were due to a few cases of hyponatremia that received a ot of attention, including the death of Cynthia Lucero during the 2002 Boston Marathon. Suddenly, runners developed a fear of drinking too much, although there was no science to back up completely cutting their fluid and sodium intake to a dangerously low level.

Everything in Moderation

So what’s an athlete to do? Think back to your grandma’s times – and advice: everything in moderation. You can take anything too far, and that includes cutting your water intake, or overindulging. You want to find the happy medium for your size, the amount of time you will be running, the weather (both heat, cold, and humidity levels), and other factors – and hydrate appropriately.
staying hydrated
Dehydration is More Common Than You May Think

Dehydration will negatively impact an athlete’s performance in all weather. Most scientists and medical professional agree that light runs and workouts when it’s cool do not require much more than taking drinks when thirsty.  However, that is the one exception to the rule. A study in the Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism went into great detail on the causes and effects of dehydration and found that athletes who just sipped when they were thirsty were likely to end up dehydrated (over 40% of participants in the study) and a disturbing 32% started their runs or workouts in that state, basing their body’s needs purely on whether or not they were thirsty.  Why is relying on thirst a poor measure of proper athletic hydration? It doesn’t account for people’s perception of thirst (and hunger – as studies, such as a 2010 US National Institute of Health study, have often shown that people’s bodies are merely seeking water, and not food) is subjective – and varies greatly, whether or not they are athletes.

Another contributing factor may be that  many athletes think they know their bodies and thus, their needs, more than they actually do. Certainly not a knock on any athlete, just again, this is one of those cases where the scientists and doctors may be worth listening to. After all, if you strained a muscle and your doctor said, “take a week off from running, lest you risk a more serious injury,” you’d listen, correct? This is the exact same situation.

How To Gauge Your Fluid Intake Need During Exercise

Eric Sternlich, who is now a Professor of Kinseiology at Chapman State University, who also founded Simply Fit, Inc., a nutrition and exercise consulting company, is an advocate for a far  more scientific method of judging your needs for liquids when running or engaging in athletic activities: weight. Simply weigh yourself and write that number down. Then run or exercise as you normally would for an hour, and weigh yourself again.  That’s how much fluid you lost – and should be replacing – on an hourly basis. The suggested amount is two cups of liquid for every pound lost during your workout.  Keep a log: this amount is not fixed, and it fluctuates with the weather conditions, as well as type of workout or run you engage in. Within time, you’ll have a guide that enables you to truly gauge your fluid intake needs based on what you’re doing, and the conditions in which you are doing it.

Electrolyte Balance is Important for Performance

Another important factor to consider is the electrolyte  levels in your blood. As much as the Gatorade Sports Science Institute sounds like a commercial gimmick to sell sports drinks, it actually isn’t – and never was. The fact is, athletes need more than just water for optimum performance for long competitions that last hours. The electrolytes sodium and potassium are critically important in regulating your body’s water balance during running. Electrolytes enable your cells to maintain the correct level of water in you body for optimal performance. We lose electrolyte content through sweating when we exercise.  During a shorter distance run, electrolyte loss is not usually an issue. However, in longer duration efforts (especially in the heat) this loss can impair performance. Trying to rehydrate by drinking a lot of water, yet failing to ingest electrolytes, can upset the balance of electrolytes in the body.

Important Guidelines To Avoid Dehydration and Over-hydration

Science and medicine are ever-changing fields, and two that every runner and athlete should pay attention to, and make adjustments to their routines when, or if, the guidelines change. But for now, the case seems to be closed on this one:

  1. Never intentionally dehydrate or over-hydrate when running or working out.
  2. Realize that many runners and athletes are at least mildly dehydrated and unaware they are; be sure to use more scientific methods to maintain proper hydration levels.
  3. Be aware of the body’s electrolyte balance and refuel with water and electrolytes as needed during long and strenuous physical activities.

Follow these simple rules for safer running and athletic performances in 2017, and keep an eye out for friends, running buddies, and teammates. You could save a life – or prevent health complications – for safer, happier athletes. Do you agree? Disagree? Do you have any tried and true ways to stay hydrated? Be sure to share them with us at blog@chalktalksports.com.

Here’s to a safe and successful 2017.



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