Updated: Oct 21, 2020
Not sure why hydration is key for athletes, how much you should be drinking, or when to use sports drinks? Read on for those answers and more!
Staying adequately hydrated is absolutely critical for performance. Most athletes have had this idea hammered into them, but many athletes don't really understand why hydration is so important.
Hydration is a performance enhancing tool that many athletes overlook. One-up your competitors by hydrating before/during and rehydrating after training sessions and competitions!
Hopefully I've peaked your interest in learning how to prioritize hydration. Not sure where to start? Read on to understand what dehydration is and how to prevent it from negatively impacting your workout!
Why is Hydration Important?
When you lose just 2% of your body weight due to dehydration, you can see a decrease in performance. The problem is, when you feel thirsty you're already at 1% and it's almost too late! That's why it's important to drink early and drink often, especially during exercise. But, water alone won't always be enough, which is where sports drink mixes come in. They have electrolytes to help you hold onto the fluids you're drinking and hydrate you more effectively.
What are electrolytes?
Electrolytes are basically just minerals that carry a charge. They help with hydration, especially sodium, because they pull water into the cells with them and help maintain fluid balance inside and outside of the cells. Key electrolytes for athletes include:
Sodium (*most important)
Why do we need electrolytes?
Electrolytes play an important role in muscle contraction, conducting nerve impulses, and maintaining the acid-base balance of the body - all of which are super important for athletes! During exercise, especially in hot and humid weather, you lose water and electrolytes through your sweat. This depletes the plasma volume of your blood, making becomes harder to maintain your effort. Sports drinks help you replenish both electrolytes and fluids to combat dehydration!
What happens if I become dehydrated?
We know that dehydration can negatively impact performance, but how exactly does this happen? Dehydration:
Makes it harder to deliver oxygen to working muscles
Can reduce your ability to sweat, which makes it harder to maintain your core temperature and leads to overheating
Causes you to burn through your energy stores more quickly, leading to earlier fatigue
Impairs your muscles' ability to contract properly, which can decrease power output
Most sports drinks are high in sugar, why is that?
Although sugar gets a bad rap, when used correctly it can actually help improve hydration. Sugar breaks down into glucose in the blood stream, and like electrolytes, glucose can help move water into cells which increases hydration. You don't need a sports drink with sugar for every workout, save it for your more intense workout days and opt for a lower sugar option on lighter training days or off days.
How much should I be drinking?
This will depend on:
The athlete: size, gender, sport, sweat rate, makeup of sweat, medications, and other individual differences can all impact fluid needs
The environment: you need more fluids and electrolytes in hot, humid climates as well as at altitude
Duration of exercise: the longer you're out there, the more fluid you need
That being said, a good general number to shoot for is around 2 liters per day. This is equivalent to 2 large nalgenes, 3-4 regular sized hydroflasks, or about 8-10 glasses of water per day. Keep in mind that you may need more or less depending on the factors mentioned above.
When do I need sports drinks?
On days that you're training for more than an hour, it's a good idea to have some form of electrolytes to help replace what you lose in your sweat. On lighter training days, you're most likely getting electrolytes you need from your food.
I recommend using a lower sugar product like Nuun on lighter training days where you still need electrolytes, and using a product with more sugar like Skratch Labs on longer run days or more intense workout days when you need some fuel as well as electrolytes.
What should I look for in a sports drink?
This depends on how you're using it. Some sports drinks have more carbs, which are great for ultra-runners or for endurance training days that are over 90 minutes. Some sports drinks have mostly electrolytes, which are best for workout days under 90 minutes or to help add more electrolytes if needed.
Typically, a good rule of thumb is to look for a sports drink that:
Has around 300mg of sodium and 100mg of potassium per serving
Doesn't contain artificial/no-calorie sweeteners or sugar alcohols (can cause stomach upset)
Has less than 20 grams of sugar (*for less intense training days)
Are free from corn syrup, artificial colors/flavors, or other unnecessary ingredients
Some of my favorites include:
Nuun Sport - great for hydrating before workouts or on lighter training days
Skratch Labs Sport Hydration - I use this during track sessions, tempos, or steady/hard effort runs
Maurten Drink Mix 160 - great for long runs that are close to or over 90 minutes
When should I be drinking?
All day long! It can take your body up to 24 hours to become rehydrated, so the best thing to do is to never let it get to the point where you have to fully rehydrate. Here are some ways I stay hydrated:
Drink 8-16 oz. of electrolytes (like Nuun) 1-2 hours before your workouts
Sip on fluids throughout your workouts, especially during longer days
Replace what you lost during your workout - a simple way to check if you've done this is to weigh yourself before and after your workout. Any weight loss is due to dehydration, and you want to drink as much fluid as it takes to get your weight back to what it was before the workout (*don't do this every day, I recommend only doing this once or twice to get an idea of how much you need to drink)
Drink throughout the day - come up with a hydration schedule to help you stay on top of your fluids, even if you don't feel thirsty. For example, I try to finish at least one water bottle before lunch, another before dinner, and another before bed. Set a reminder on your phone if you tend to forget!
What if I don't like water?
You're not alone! I hear this all the time from my athletes that struggle with hydration. I recommend adding fruit or fresh herbs to your water such as lemons, limes, oranges, berries, cucumber, mint, basil, etc. for a fresh flavor. Other liquids like milk, tea, juice, and yes even coffee can also be hydrating BUT you will get more bang for your buck with water.