How to Enhance Hydration for Athletic Performance
The sun is shining, the flowers are blooming, and summer is almost here! As it starts to heat up, you may start to notice that you’re sweating buckets or becoming thirsty much more often. You gotta stay hydrated through these hot months to maintain high levels of performance, especially as a female athlete! Here are some tips on how to use hydration to promote optimal performance during training and games.
What Does Hydration Do for Us?
Water is essential to support all of our body’s functions! Below are just a few reasons why it’s so important to hydrate.
Regulate Body Heat
Water helps our body maintain a stable body temperature. The water in our sweat carries out heat to cool the body when your body is warm. Your body generates a lot of heat during training and games! It’s important to replenish the water you lose to keep your body temperature from rising, especially since increased body heat can overwork your body and make you feel fatigued.
Promote Good Circulation
Hydration also impacts blood circulation. Water is a major component of plasma, which flows through our blood vessels. During practice, our blood vessels dilate to increase blood flow to the muscles. This helps to supply your muscles with oxygen and to cool your blood. However, sweating will deplete your body of water, making this process less efficient. This may lead to drops in blood pressure, reduced oxygen delivery to the body, and increased fatigue. Maintaining an optimal hydration status will allow your heart and circulation to work more efficiently.
Finally, hydration may influence your mood and focus. Even slight dehydration may decrease mood and concentration and make it harder for you to complete tasks. The pressure is on when it comes down to the last 15 minutes of a match, and all you want to do is help lead your team to victory. Feeling hot, thirsty, and unfocused will make it much more difficult to endure the rest of the match, but you can prevent these issues with proper hydration.
These are only a few of the key roles that water plays in our bodies. Ensuring optimal hydration status will prevent performance drop offs during practices and games. As little as a 2% loss in fluids through sweat and breathing can result in significant drops in performance.
So all we need to do is drink more water to achieve optimal hydration, right? Not so fast! Water isn’t the only contributor to our hydration status. We also need to make sure we are getting in enough electrolytes to improve our hydration.
What Are Electrolytes?
Electrolytes are electrically-charged minerals that help in nerve function, muscular contraction, and maintenance of blood pressure. They include sodium, chloride, potassium, and to a lesser extent magnesium, calcium, and phosphorus. When we sweat, the water also carries out sodium and chloride. Salt losses need to be accounted for in your fueling plan!
Believe it or not, electrolyte levels have a larger influence on hydration-related issues like cramping than water. More specifically, sodium is the top choice to prevent cramps. While many turn to bananas for their potassium to relieve muscle cramps, potassium is unlikely to be the main contributor to your muscle cramps. We only lose about 50mg of potassium for every 2lb of sweat loss. Sodium and chloride losses in sweat play a bigger role in cramps, and drinking salt-containing drinks promote better hydration status than drinking water alone. We can lose around 1000mg of sodium for every 2lb of sweat lost, so be sure to look for a rehydration drink or snack that has sodium in it!
The Dish on Sodium
Today, it’s common to hear that the average person needs to eat less than 1500mg of sodium every day. As an athlete, should you be following these limits? The answer is likely no, because you are not the average person! Remember, you can lose thousands of milligrams of sodium during practices and games.
Where to Find Electrolytes
You can find electrolytes in many of the foods you eat. The major electrolytes that play a role in fluid balance are sodium, chloride, and potassium. Sodium and chloride are found in pretzels, trail mix, pickles, or just plain old table salt! Bananas, sweet potatoes, dried apricots, avocados, and coconut water contain potassium.
Sometimes, we may not be able to get enough electrolytes through the foods we eat. In this case, it may be beneficial to drink an electrolyte-containing sports drink. I suggest finding one that also has simple carbs, like Gatorade or Powerade, to fuel you throughout longer training sessions and games. You can also add electrolyte mixes like Nuun or LiquidIV to your water to get in even more electrolytes. When searching for an electrolyte drink, be sure to choose one that at least has sodium rather than potassium. Remember, the need to replenish potassium is not as high compared to sodium. With that being said, don’t turn down a great electrolyte drink if it does contain potassium! It’s not a bad idea to still have this electrolyte in our recovery drinks since it’s typically harder to meet our potassium needs.
There are many ways you might be able to tell if you are dehydrated. One of the more common ways is to do a urine test. If you find that your urine is darker in color, this may be a sign that you need to rehydrate. On the other hand, if your urine is nearly clear, you might want to slow down to prevent overhydration!
Feeling “conscious thirst” is another way to measure your hydration status. Once you feel thirsty, your body is telling you that it wants water. It’s critical that you rehydrate as soon as possible!
More serious signs of dehydration will start to take a major toll on your body. You may start experiencing cramps, fatigue, dizziness, and soreness. If your body is unable to cool itself down, you may experience something as severe as heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Properly hydrating yourself throughout the day, during practice, and during games will prevent heat illnesses and keep you performing at your best!
How to Hydrate
You and your teammates are all training in a similar environment. You are all likely training in the same temperature, humidity, wind, and altitude, and these factors play a role in how intensely you need to hydrate. However, hydration plans are individualized, so what works for your teammates might not always work for you because of other personal factors.
Your individual sweat rate and salt losses play a big role in how much you need to hydrate. Notice how you always seem to be working up a greater sweat than some of your teammates? While both of you are working just as hard as the other, each of you may simply sweat differently and therefore require different hydration plans.
While individual hydration plans may vary, here’s a general guideline of how to hydrate for maximal performance.
Properly Hydrate Beforehand
Proper hydration before training, and especially before games, is essential since there are limited opportunities to rehydrate. Before training, aim to drink 16-32oz of water about 2-3 hours before training. Around 1 hour before a hard training or a game, drink 8-10oz of an electrolyte-containing drink. This will help to stabilize your internal body temperature and prevent heat-related illnesses.
Continue Drinking Fluids When You Can!
During training, aim to drink 8oz of fluids every 15-20 minutes of training. If your training is lasting more than one hour, opt for a sports drink that has a mixture of carbohydrates and electrolytes to maintain maximal energy levels.
Hydration during games might be a bit more difficult. Even though you’re only limited to a 15 minute halftime, take advantage of this break by resting, re-fueling, and re-hydrating! This is the perfect time for you to rehydrate with a carb- and electrolyte-rich sports drink. Try to achieve balance with proper hydration and avoid drinking too much fluids at once. You don’t want to be running around with liquid sloshing around in your stomach! Try slowly drinking 20oz of Gatorade or Powerade towards the beginning of halftime to allow your stomach to settle before heading back out to the field.
Hydration for Recovery
A tried-and-true way of seeing how much fluids you should drink after practice is by weighing yourself before and after, then drinking 24oz of fluids per pound lost. So, if you lose 2lb of water during training, aim to drink 48oz, or 6 cups, of water. You should pace your fluid intake throughout the rest of the day after your training or game to meet these recommendations to prevent overloading yourself.
This rehydration plan might not be optimal at night. Instead, it’s crucial that you prioritize hydration leading up to and the morning after practices to prevent major fluctuations in your hydration status. Focus on an electrolyte-rich drink and a balanced post-practice meal or snack to help your body recover. Drinking chocolate milk is one of my favorite ways to rehydrate and refuel after a nighttime practice!
Fluid Intake Throughout the Day
How can you be sure to hydrate throughout the day? Well, as an athlete, you should always have a water bottle on hand! Keeping a water bottle nearby will serve as a reminder to stay hydrated. You can also make it a habit to drink at least 12oz of water at fueling times, which will bring you to a minimum of 36oz if you fuel three times per day!
Don’t Jump In All At Once!
Now that you know when and how to hydrate, you may be excited to jump all in. Knowing that you’re adding this to your toolbox of “Nutrition Hacks to Becoming a Great Athlete” has me jumping for joy, too! BUT, it’s important that you slowly build your fluid intake over a few days to allow your body to adapt. Drinking too much water when you’re not used to it may lead to an upset stomach.
What if you find yourself behind and feel the need to “catch up” on your fluid intake? I’d also advise against this, since it might not be as beneficial as you think. Drinking a lot of fluids may only lead more trips to the bathroom rather than improved hydration. Drinking too much water at once may also put you at risk for hyponatremia, which is when there are low sodium levels in your blood. This is a dangerous condition that could result in dehydration-like symptoms like dizziness, nausea, vomiting, muscle cramps, fatigue, drowsiness, and confusion.
Ideal hydration plans, just like an ideal fueling plan, are highly individualized but aim to reach the same goal: better performance on the field! You can achieve optimal hydration status by drinking an adequate amount of water and electrolytes, prioritizing hydration during training and games, and pacing your fluid intake throughout the day. Nailing a solid hydration plan will help you reduce risk of heat illness and injury while helping you to become the best player you can be!