The Importance of Hydration For Athletes

Over the summer I spent some time working with a local juniour varsity football team and taking some time to educate them on hydration and electrolyte balance for athletic performance. I quickly learned how daunting a task it is to hold the attention of a group of teenaged boys for more than a few minutes, but I digress.

I felt it would be good to adapt the information from my talking points into an article, since proper hydration is important for all athletic endeavours, especially those that take place outdoors during the summer heat. Strongman, Football, Basketball, Soccer, and even Crossfit; regardless of your sport, take a couple minutes to read this and ask yourself if you’re doing everything you can to optimize your performance through proper hydration. 

What is Hydration and why do we care?

Hydration in physiological terms refers to the process of the cells in our bodies absorbing and retaining water, or simply put the total amount of water in our body. Even as little as a 2% reduction in total body fluids can have a major impact on decreasing performance. Water makes up the majority of our body weight (especially our muscle and brain mass), so it makes sense that being dehydrated by even a small amount will affect athletic performance. How do you know how much body weight this amounts to? Since water does make up a large amount of our body, a 1-2% drop in body weight can put a damper on things if you are trying to perform at your very best.

As an athlete you can monitor your water balance and the amount your sport dehydrates you during practice or competition through weighing yourself. Step on the scale just before practice and record this number, then step on the scale right after practice and record that number to get the difference. If fluids were all you consumed during practice you’ll have a good idea of how much water your body lost through sweating and exertion while playing your sport. Once you have a baseline of how much water you typically expel during exercise, you can make sure that you are adequately rehydrating yourself. It's fairly common for bigger athletes to lose up to 1 L of water or 1 kg an hour in high heat. If it's not as hot or you're not sweating as heavily, you’ll not lose as much water. Likewise, if you hydrate yourself well enough, you won't see as much of a change in weight on the scale. Replenish the lost body fluids by drinking 750 mL to 1 L of water per hour of training in the heat (see more on How to Properly Hydrate below). If you weigh yourself before and after exercise and your weight stays the same or only fluctuates by a couple tenths of a pound then you know you are hydrating well enough.

Electrolytes and How To Properly Hydrate

Likely more important than just water balance is also taking into consideration electrolyte balance when it comes to properly rehydrating and maintaining optimal athletic performance. Electrolytes are “ions” in our body that help us to absorb and retain the water that we drink, as well as play a big role in the usage of energy by the muscles for maximal contractions. Basically electrolytes make our muscles work. Electrolytes, just like water, are also lost during sweating, which is why top level athletes also need to replenish electrolytes in order to properly rehydrate. In addition to this, water gets absorbed and retained better when it is consumed with some electrolytes. So you will better hydrate yourself by combining the two.

Hydration Strategies

When I did this hydration seminar for the football team I was working with my friend who is the owner of Herc’s Nutrition Peterborough, so I did emphasize some of the supplements he had available when looking at ways for athletes to properly hydrate. 

There are generally three ways that you can approach maintaining proper hydration during your sport practice or competition:

  •  drinking water with a pinch of sea salt.
  •  sports supplements containing electrolytes designed for rehydration
  •  consuming conveniently available sports drinks

Option 1: Water with Sea Salt

If you don’t have the budget for additional sports supplements or products just for hydration, you may have to rely on water. This can work perfectly fine and is probably all that is needed for less intense sports or practices. Add a pinch of sea salt to the water to help replenish some electrolytes. The downside of going this route is that it is less accurate to determine if you are consuming an adequate amount of electrolytes and it is less complete as far as the electrolytes you’ll be getting compared to a supplement. 


Option 2: Sports Supplements

Finding the right supplement can provide you with the most economical option next to water and provide you with a variety of electrolytes and other ingredients to help boost and maintain your performance even when excessively sweating. The product example that I showed the football team was Scivation Xtend. This product costs about a dollar per serving or a little more (in Canada) and contains almost 10 times the amount of electrolytes in a normal serving of Gatorade. When sweating up to 1 L per hour the amount of electrolytes in sports drink like Gatorade or water + salt alone won’t cut it for keeping you at peak performance. A single serving of a product like Xtend would even be good enough to add to 2 L of water to keep you going for over 2 hours during longer games or practices in the heat. Most of these sports supplements also contain other ingredients that will help to support optimal performance in addition to the electrolytes. Xtend also has a good amount of branched-chain amino acids, which help fuel and promote recovery in muscles, and citrulline mallate, which can increase muscular endurance through supporting energy production. 


There are also electrolyte supplements specifically designed for counteracting extreme dehydration either due to illness in hospital settings or long-distance runners, like Nuun tablets, which are a bit harder to find, but are available on Amazon


Option 3: RTD Sports Drinks

Ready-to-drink sports drinks that you can find at any convenience store, grocery store, and in many vending machines are the third category of hydration. These products are convenient, but don’t really provide you with the best bang for your buck. As mentioned when discussing sports supplements that contain electrolytes, many products that cost half the price of Gatorade will provide you with greater amounts and a broader range of electrolyte ingredients. If training in extreme heat, or sweating excessively, Gatorade will still be better than plain water and you can even make it more affordable by diluting a bottle of Gatorade with a bottle of water to make 1 L total volume and add a pinch of sea salt for additional electrolytes. 



Maintaining Energy and Electrolyte Balance Throughout the Day


Hydration doesn’t start and stop on the field or in the gym. In order to be properly hydrated and perform your best in your sport, you need to value the effort you put in outside of training just as much. Drinking enough water and eating enough of the right foods will ensure that you are properly fuelled and hydrated so that you aren’t coming in to training from a deficit. Here are some additional tips to work on if you want to get better at whatever your sport is:

• Drink at least 4 L of water per day outside of the water you include during training. You can add a pinch of sea salt to this water to better hydrate yourself. 

• Athletes need not worry too much about consuming excessive sodium. Hard training will most often balance out the extra sodium coming from sports drinks or adding sea salt to water. If you have any concerns or a history of high blood pressure or problems handling sodium, consult your physician. 

• Consume a high quality protein source and some fruits or vegetables with every meal. Fruits and vegetables in addition to well-balanced meals naturally contain some of the electrolyte minerals you need in order to perform. 

• If you are training heavy and hard very often, consume some carbohydrates with every meal as well. Muscles prefer carbs for sustaining a high level of intense athletic performance. Be sure to include a hefty amount of carbs after strenuous practices or games in order to adequately recover before the next one.

• An hour and a half to one hour before practice or game time consume a light meal or snack if you haven’t eaten well throughout the day. Be sure to include some carbohydrates and sodium. Good examples would be a peanut butter sandwich with a banana, or a turkey sandwich with a banana or other fruits, or a few handfuls of trail mix.  


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