The Importance of Hydration

Don't forget to reach for that water often!

Don't forget to reach for that water often!

Water is a basic necessity for all life. Without it, life can't exist. 

When water is limited, living organisms suffer. This fact is particularly true for active people whose mental and physical performance is suboptimal if hydration is inadequate. Quite simply, not getting enough water means you can't do your best, and worse, can lead to serious health problems. 

The human body consists of roughly 60% water, 20% protein and fat (muscle and brain) and 20% skeleton (bone and teeth).  Within single cells, however, water content ranges between 70 and 85%.  Water is in a number of different compartments of the body.  The majority is inside the cells (intracellular) and the balance is extracellular, including 3 – 4 liters blood.

Blood circulates through our bodies carrying oxygen, nutrients and energy to our cells. It also carries waste products away from our cells for excretion. Water helps regulate our body temperature as well, which is particularly important in sports.  Water dilutes toxic metabolites and aids in their elimination through urine and sweat.

Athletes have a special need for water as they burn a lot of calories.  Some of that unleashed energy powers muscles.  But some of that energy is released as heat. Water keeps you from overheating.  Sweating and evaporation from the skin cools you down.  However, water is lost in the cooling process.  That can be dangerous if the water is not replenished.  If you run low on water, your body can overheat, like a car that is low on cooling fluid.  Losing just two percent of the body's water can hurt performance.  This includes fuzzy short-term memory, trouble with basic math, and difficulty focusing on the task at hand.  It has been shown that dehydration can impair driving ability just like alcohol intoxication.  (Incidentally, alcohol dehydrates the brain, leading to the hangover feeling!)

 A five percent loss can cause heat exhaustion.  A seven to ten percent loss can result in heat stroke, fainting, and death. Dehydration can damage all the vital organs, in particular the kidneys and brain. 

Lack of water is the #1 trigger of daytime fatigue.  Preliminary research also indicates that 8-10 glasses of water a day could significantly ease back and joint pain for up to 80% of sufferers. Optimal hydration also reduces headaches and improves mental clarity, endurance and performance.  

Thirst is your body's signal that you need to drink water. But by the time you have a dry mouth or feel thirsty, you may have already lost one percent to two percent of your water--and that's enough to hurt performance.  

Drinking moderate amounts at frequent intervals is the best strategy during sports, hiking, or other vigorous activities. About one cup (eight ounces or 200 -250 mls) of cool water every 15 to 20 minutes during an activity is about right.  That’s approximately a litre an hour.   Cool – but not ice-cold water (10 - 12 degrees Celsius) is best. Cool water helps absorb body heat. And it empties from the stomach into the intestine at a fast rate, which allows it to be absorbed rapidly into the body.  (Interestingly, in the desert, warm tea is the beverage of choice.)   

Some drinks that have caffeine, such as colas and iced tea, are advertised as thirst quenchers. Do not use caffeine-containing beverages as fluid rehydration drinks shortly before, during, or after a practice or competition. Caffeine acts as a diuretic which means it increases urine output and can promote dehydration. 

Are Sports drinks necessary?

Your biggest concern is getting enough water--pure, cool water. Even the salt you lose while sweating can be easily replaced by salt that is naturally in foods. 

Plain, cool water is the fluid of choice when the actual exercise does not last longer than 60 to 90 minutes. You don't need an energy source in the fluid you drink to rehydrate. During these normal situations, if you have been eating and training properly, you should have enough energy stored as liver and muscle glycogen to power you through. 

However, in some situations where the exercise is unusually long, sport drinks containing carbohydrates and electrolytes may offer you an advantage.  During these situations, you may run low on energy and electrolytes.

There are many different commercial sport drinks available. They contain varying kinds and amounts of carbohydrates and electrolytes.  Avoid sport drinks that contain fructose as the only source of carbohydrate.  Fructose may delay gastric emptying of fluid and cause upset stomach.  And fructose must first be converted to glucose before it can be used for energy.  This conversion means you can't use fructose as an energy source as quickly as other carbohydrates.  High fructose corn syrup (aka glucose/fructose) is a sweetener found in a lot of soft drinks, energy bars and other products.  It is a processed carbohydrate which has been linked to obesity and other health concerns and is best avoided.

Fruit juices like orange juice vary from 10% to 17% carbohydrate concentration and should also be diluted with equal amounts of pure water if you're using them as a fluid replacement drink before, during, or after an event or practice session. 

Summary:

Take every opportunity to drink water and other appropriate fluids. Drink fluids throughout the day, even when you are not thirsty.  Follow the Golden Rule – if your urine is concentrated and dark yellow- you are likely dehydrated; pale yellow indicates the urine is dilute and you are well hydrated.

Ensuring proper hydration means you can perform your best, mentally and physically.  You will have fewer headaches and back pain, better detoxification and elimination.  Your stamina and endurance will be long lasting and you will feel sharp and alert all day!