Hydration Strategies for Competitive Athletes, by Katie Elliott, MS, RD

If you’re an athlete, chances are you’ve heard that hydration is important. Between Gatorade commercials, coaches pushing fluids, and national health recommendations, this is likely not the first time you’ve encountered a pro-hydration message. But, how well do you really know the ins and outs of hydration? Furthermore, can you appreciate that hydration can play a critical role in maximizing performance?

Benefits of Performance Hydration and Consequences of Dehydration

The main motivator for most athletes to stay hydrated is to help performance. In short, athletic performance takes a hit when an athlete is dehydrated. Science shows that as little as a 2% loss of body water through sweating may negatively impact athletic capacity. From a physiological standpoint, the body must work harder as a consequence of dehydration because core temperature and heart rate are increased while blood pressure decreases. These physiological factors are part of the reason an athlete experiences fatigue. Additionally, they can experience negative consequences like headaches, nausea, and vomiting as a result of dehydration.

Dehydration also results in sodium losses, which cause electrolyte imbalances. A common theory as to why athletes cramp is this imbalance. Other theories for cramping include the neuromuscular theory, which I believe is part of the equation along with sodium losses. Finally, proper hydration will improve your ability to recover from training and competition and minimize injury.

Moving right along, what are the best ways to stay hydrated and how do you gauge hydration status? What do you need to do to create an individualized hydration strategy? Finally, why is an individual hydration strategy (as opposed to a one-size-fits all approach) important?

Basic Hydration Strategies for Athletes

Start your Training Sessions Hydrated

It is important to begin workouts in a hydrated state. That means that you need to be drinking throughout the day in addition to having some fluid at least 4 hours before exercise and, additionally, 2 hours in advance of your training session. Some general recommendations from the American College of Sports Medicine are as follows:

1/2 of this bottle is 12 ounces

ACSM Recommendation:

Drink 5-7 ml per kg of body weight 4 hours before exercise and drink 3-5 ml per kg of body weight 2 hours before exercise [i].

Translation:

If you weigh 130 lbs., drink about 10-14 ounces of fluid 4 hours before training and drink 6-10 ounces 2 hours before your workout.

Stay Hydrated During Training as Well

You also need to replace fluids lost [through sweat] during training. This is where things get slightly more complicated because different athletes have different hydration needs (more on that later). Here are a few general recommendations to get you started with a hydration plan (we’ll talk a bit later about steps you can use to individualize your strategy).

  • Begin by drinking 16-24 ounces of fluid per hour (or roughly one water bottle)
  • Plan to drink every 10-15 minutes if possible
  • To see if you are drinking enough, weigh yourself before and after workouts. If you have lost more than 2% of your body weight, then your fluid replacement was not adequate to prevent performance decline. Next time, work to drink more fluid during exercise (i.e., if you are a 130 lb. person and you lost 2.6 pounds or more during exercise, you need to be consuming more fluids while you are training).
  • Utilize sports drinks in appropriate situations to maximize during-exercise hydration.

When to Drink a Sports Drink

A sports drink can be beneficial in some situations but is unnecessary in others. The benefits of drinking sports drinks are as follows:

  • Fluids are better absorbed with electrolytes found in sports drinks.
  • Glucose is better absorbed in the presence of sodium, which is important if you need to take in carbohydrates during exercise.
  • Sodium (present in sports drinks) stimulates thirst and helps keep athletes drinking/hydrated.
  • Sodium (present in sports drinks) helps maintain blood plasma volume. Since sweat is pulled from blood plasma, declining levels means the body must work harder to cool itself and to maintain capacity. Thus, having sodium in a drink when salt losses are significant can be important for both performance and health.

On the contrary, the drawbacks of consuming sports drinks when you don’t need them are added calories, carbohydrates, and sodium in excess of the body’s needs. Here are some general rules of thumb about how to choose your drink.

DRINK SPORTS DRINK:

  • If you are working out at a moderate intensity for 90 minutes or more.
  • If you are working out at a vigorous intensity for over an hour.
  • In competition situations (to maximize fluid absorption and to keep glycogen stores topped off).
  • If you have two training sessions a day that consist of moderate to vigorous intensities.
  • If it is the day before your race, and your event will be held in hot conditions.

DRINK WATER OR A LOW-CALORIE ELECTROLYTE REPLACEMENT:

  • For vigorous intensity workouts under an hour.
  • For moderate intensity workouts under 90 minutes.
  • In between workouts.

Bottom line, sports drinks serve a very specific purpose and should be used when they are necessary. If you have a situation that does require a sports drink, Cocoa Elite makes a tasty beverage called Elite Endurance. Elite Endurance contains electrolytes and carbohydrates in addition to Cocoa Flavanols, which help support the cardiovascular system.

Fluid and Electrolyte Replacement Post-Exercise

To be ready to go for your next event or workout, stay hydrated and replenish fluids. The best way to gauge what you need is to weigh yourself before and after exercise. For every pound you lose, you should drink 16-24 ounces of fluid, preferably with a meal. You can improve absorption by pairing the fluid with electrolytes in food.

Another practical way to gauge hydration status is to monitor the color of your urine alongside thirst and how you are feeling. If your urine color is clear and you are having to pee a lot, you can probably slow down on drinking. If your urine is consistently dark and you are often extremely thirsty after training, you might need to consider having more fluids during your workouts.

Basically, urine color should be a part of what you consider to determine hydration status but not your only measure.

Photo credit: Sampletemplates.com

This is because urine color doesn’t always correlate to actual hydration status at a blood and cellular level (where it is most important). Urine color can be influenced by numerous factors such as alcohol intake, taking certain medications, drinking a lot of coffee and tea, swimming in cold water, drinking a lot of water all at once, and nerves. Therefore, taking into account a few different measures is the best approach.

If you have lost a significant amount of fluid and need to rehydrate quickly, you might consider having a recovery drink initially (like Cocoa Elite Complete Body Recovery). Once you can sit down for a meal, you can have the additional water you require alongside your food. In this case, you are maximizing recovery and giving yourself the best chance to rehydrate.

Individualizing your Hydration Strategy

Hydration needs vary significantly within and among athletes. Different athletes lose different amounts of sweat per hour [sweat rate]. Different people also lose varying levels of sodium per liter of sweat per hour. Here is a little perspective. I have seen some athletes who only lose 16 oz per hour and others who lose upwards of 41 oz per hour. In addition, my personal sweat rate can range from 28 to 41 oz per hour depending on different factors like environmental conditions, exercise intensity, heat acclimation, and the clothes I am wearing. Yes, my sweat rate is high! To see what you personally need to be drinking per hour, it makes sense to conduct a sweat rate test in various conditions. You will want to keep track of this data, so that you can use it to inform training and racing strategies.

In terms of sweat concentration, some athletes lose 200 mg of sodium per liter of sweat whereas others lose 2000 mg of sodium/liter.[ii] Thus, sweat concentration testing using an accurate method like Pilocarpine Iontophoresis can be huge in informing your hydration strategy. If you are interested in either sweat rate testing or sweat concentration testing, get in touch with Elliott Performance & Nutrition. We conduct both tests at our lab in Basalt, CO and can direct you to another lab if you are not local.

In Conclusion

Athletic achievements are often decided by seconds, even hundredths of a second. You need to take every advantage you can to ensure you are shaving those tiny fractions of time. Ensuring you stay hydrated before, during, and after exercise is a basic step you can take to maximize performance and health. Individualizing your strategy is a more advanced step that is worth taking if you are serious about your goals. Whichever direction you decide to go, know that you are moving the athletic performance needle by paying attention to what, when, and how often you are drinking.

[i] Karpinski, C. and Rosenbloom, C. (2017). Sports Nutrition: A Handbook for Professionals, 6th Edition. Chicago: Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
[ii]Precision Hydration. (2018). Are you Hydrating your Athletes Properly? Retrieved from: https://www.precisionhydration.com/pages/sweat_testing_professional_athletes.

Katie Elliott is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. She is the founder of Elliott Performance and Nutrition, based in Aspen, Colorado. Katie works with clients nationwide via tele-health and provides counseling and exercise testing at Achieve Health and Performance.

Katie’s specialties include sports nutrition, nutrition for the prevention and treatment of disease, weight loss, and worksite wellness. She has coached athletes to several podium finishes as a Triathlon Coach.

In addition, Katie attended IMG Academies as a junior tennis player. She played Division I tennis at Davidson College.  She has competed on numerous amateur world triathlon teams. Since 2004, Katie has won numerous overall amateur titles. She has been on 6 World Championship teams and has finished 2nd at two National Championships. Furthermore, Katie achieved a 6th place finish at the World Championship in her age group.

Contact her here: Katie Elliott, MS, RD.

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