Hydration For Olympic Level Success
Hydrating Safely is the Key to Stepping Up Your Game
Anyone who aspires to compete at an Olympic level knows the key to success is to give it 110 percent. At the core of every inspirational sports movie and athleisure commercial starring the likes of Simone Biles or, more recently, Lindsey Vonn, is a singular theme. Hard work, very hard work, is the only way to succeed in athletics.
This kind of dazzling success is largely dependent on years of practice, building strength, endurance, and mental fortitude.
Yet, just a small percentage of energy expended during exercise (25 percent) goes towards productive work. And the rest of that effort – the other 75 percent of energy – is heat loss from perspiration and exhalation.
Perhaps it is obvious that exercise leads to fluid loss, but the extent to which an Olympic athlete loses fluid is less apparent and often unexpected.
Hydration isn’t one size fits all
Everyone knows it’s important to stay hydrated, but it’s hard to figure out exactly how much water to drink. Sure, people say 8 cups of water per day is enough, but there’s no way this rule applies to a 12-year-old, 100-pound child as well as a 50-year-old, 200-pound man.
Weight actually plays a big role in hydration calculations. A more customized rule of thumb is to drink between half an ounce and an ounce of water for every pound of weight. For example, a 200-pound man should consider drinking between 100 and 200 ounces of water every day.
Exercise adds a layer of complexity
The calculations get more complicated when someone adds on an exercise routine. Hydration is no joke for athletes, who must factor in a number of circumstances to ensure they drink enough water. For perspective, a reduction of an athlete’s fluid levels by just 2 percent can diminish athletic performance by up to 20 percent. For anyone looking to improve their general strength, but especially for a professional athlete, a small drop in fluid intake could cause serious ramifications.
For a basic estimate of how much water is needed to rehydrate, an athlete can calculate his or her sweat rate. This number is the difference in the athlete’s weight before and after completing a workout. For example, if someone weighs 80 kg before an hour workout and 79.6 kg after the workout is complete, they lost approximately 400 mL fluid. That athlete can potential extrapolate that information, assuming he or she loses 400 mL of fluid per hour.
It’s all relative
But there are other factors that also affect an athlete’s performance including:
- Length and intensity of the exercise
- Anaerobic or aerobic exercise
- Temperature (especially hot and cold extremes)
Length and intensity are arguably the most important factors of hydration, because they inform not only how much to drink, but also what to drink. Although a number of studies have shown that water is one of the best ways to re-hydrate after exercise, anyone exercising for longer than an hour should consider isotonic water (i.e. Gatorade, Powerade, etc), which effectively replaces fluids lost through sweating while also providing a surge of carbohydrates for energy.
The combination of re-hydration and energy is designed to provide an athlete with the right mix of nutrients to stay invigorated throughout a workout.
For anyone exercising less than an hour or doing less strenuous work, though, isotonic water can lead to weight gain.
If it’s cold outside or hot, track water consumption carefully
Temperature can also affect an athlete’s fluid loss. That cross-country skier may look fresh and dewy after a competition compared to the haggard 800-meter runner, but it’s likely they are both losing fluid at similar rates.
In the winter months, people experience thirst on average 40 percent less than they do in summer months. During the winter, sweat turns into vapor quickly so evidence of hard work is not as noticeable. Urine output also increases as bodily fluids move to extremities to keep them warmer. But cold weather body chemistry can confuse the body’s thirst signals, leading to increased dehydration.
Alas, in the summer months, athletes experience the opposite problem. A British Journal of Sports Medicine report found that when temperatures are higher, athletes run the risk of over-hydrating, which is incredibly dangerous. In recent years, there have been several instances in which on a hot summer day, encouraged by coaches and parents, a young athlete had so much water to drink during practice that they developed water intoxication, which eventually led to death.
Create parameters for success
Ultimately, it’s hard to rely the body’s thirst mechanism to inform an effective hydration regimen. And it’s definitely not a good idea to drink more than necessary at the risk of consuming too much water.
The best way for an athlete to hydrate safely is create parameters personalized to their sweat rate, temperature norms, and length of workout.