young athlete hydrating before a game

3 Goals for Optimal Athlete Hydration

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Goals for athlete hydration

Having a solid athlete hydration plan will help you improve athletic performance, and reduce the risk of heat related illness or injury. 

There are three key goals for optimized athlete hydration:

  1. Begin training and games well hydrated
  2. Minimize fluid loss during exercise and avoid excessive dehydration
  3. Replace remaining losses following exercise prior to the next activity

Why is athlete hydration important?

Having a strategy for optimal athlete hydration for youth athletes is important to achieve high performance during training and games. Adequate athlete hydration is one of the most important nutritional practices to optimize athletic performance and protect overall health. 

Research shows that even a slight decline in an athlete’s hydration status may affect their ability to focus, decision making on the field, performance at a high sustained level and time to recover. Because of this, parents and coaches should prioritize optimal hydration practices for athletes.

What is hydration?

Water’s Function

Generally water makes up about 50-75 percent of the human body and is the nutrient that is most consumed and lost each day. It’s the building block for blood, digestive fluids, urine and sweat and a key component in lean muscle, fat and bones. Water regulates body temperature, moistens tissues in the eyes, nose and mouth, lubricates joints, flushes waste and carries nutrients and oxygen to cells.

Balanced Hydration

In order for your body to maintain optimal function, it must stay in what is called a euhydrated or balanced fluid state. This means your hydration status is good. You’ve been drinking enough fluids (or eating enough food with high water content) to maintain your day to day activities. Your body usually makes adjustments to account for a 1% loss of body water within 24 hours. 

athlete hydration balance water bottle, food and fluids equal the amount of fluid loss by the body

Poor hydration status contributes to decreased performance

Inability to maintain stable body temperature

Loss of water through sweat is an important protective mechanism during exercise. Exercise creates heat in the body. Your body cools itself by sweating and the evaporation of sweat from the skin surface. Increased body heat has been shown to make you feel fatigued. As a result, your body has to work harder to cool itself off and your sweat rate decreases. 

Depending on multiple factors, sweat loss can reach 0.5-1.7 L/h during exercise. Most athletes don’t have a hydration plan and don’t replace all the fluids lost during a training or game. This results in athletes starting in a dehydrated state for their next training or game.

Restricted blood circulation

During exercise water plays an important role in transporting oxygen and nutrients to the brain and muscles. As you increase your activity, your blood vessels dilate, or open wider to allow increased blood flow. This helps to improve performance by getting nutrients and oxygen to the areas needed most.

However, when you sweat, your body depletes its water storage reducing the amount of blood that circulates through your body. With less water in your system this could result in a drop in blood volume. Therefore, the amount of blood pumped with each heart beat decreases and exercising muscles do not receive enough oxygen.  

Limited focus and decision making

Research has shown that even a 1-2% loss of body water results in decreased mood, increased perception of task difficulty, lower ability to concentrate and headache symptoms. Dehydration causes an increased perception or stimulation of thirst. Additionally it produces a level of discomfort that can distract your focus. In combination this can cause an increased perception of effort, in effect, decreasing performance. 

What effects athlete hydration?

Temperature

High temperatures contribute to an increase in core body temperatures and ultimately dehydration. During exercise your body produces heat and your core temperature elevates. In cooler temperatures, heat is lost from the body through several mechanisms including sweat. As the environmental temperature increases, however, it becomes harder for the body to cool off. Often in these situations, your sweat output far exceeds your fluid intake and you can become dehydrated.

Humidity

When you are in a hot and humid environment, your sweat doesn’t have a chance to evaporate. This results in your body getting more hot, more sweaty and then more dehydrated.

Sweat Rate

Sweat rate can be defined as the amount of fluid that you lose per hour. Some athletes sweat more than others and some lose more sodium in their sweat than others. Knowing your sweat rate, you can figure out how much water or fluids you need to rehydrate.

Altitude 

At altitude, your body can lose almost twice the amount of water through respiration than at sea level. Some of this is due to insensible losses (1) increased breathing as your body compensates for less oxygen in the blood and (2) fluid loss via skin due to very dry air. 

Duration/Intensity/Frequency

The longer and harder you exercise, the more challenging it becomes to replace fluids and electrolytes. This may be especially challenging in sports that don’t have frequent enough breaks to allow for you to drink water or sports drink. Additionally, the more frequently you exercise, the more fluids you’ll need to consume to maintain a euhydrated state, and the less time you’ll have to make up for the difference in between activities.

Signs of Dehydration

Some people mistake thirst as a trigger to prevent dehydration. However, by the time you feel thirsty you’ve already lost 1-2% of body water. Know the signs of dehydration so that you can help yourself and others.

infographic with the signs of dehydration that results from poor athlete hydration

How to assess athlete hydration status

One of the easiest ways to assess hydration status is through urine color. Pale urine typically indicates a well hydrated status. Darker urine means you’re probably dehydrated and you should drink some water or fluids right away.

athlete hydration status urine chart

Practical plans for optimal athlete hydration

Remember that all athletes are individuals and should create a hydration plan that works best for them taking into account all the factors discussed in this post. However, some basic guidelines for athlete hydration can be followed to at least start an athlete off in the right direction.

  • Fluid intake throughout the day: Start off right away filling a water bottle and sip throughout the day, trying to drink at least two full water bottles as a baseline. Try out different tops or a straw to see which encourages you to drink more. And you can also include foods with high water contents in your meals and snacks.
  • Hydrate properly before your activity: At least two hours before training, try to drink around 16-24 oz of water. Then an hour before your activity drink 8-12 oz of an electrolyte sports drink. This will help stabilize your electrolytes and provide an instant source of fuel for your muscles.
  • Hydrate during your activity: Try to drink around 8 oz of fluid every 15-20 minutes of training. That’s about four gulps verses sipping. Take advantage of water breaks during play when you can. However, for sports that have a constant pace, you may have to wait until half time. For activities lasting more than 90 minutes, you should try to drink 12 of a sports drink at halftime, to help restore electrolytes lost and add some extra fuel for your muscles.
  • Rehydrate after your activity: Following any intense training or game, you will want to rehydrate to bring your body back to a balanced state and to prepare for the next activity. A good rule of thumb is to drink 24 oz for every pound of body weight lost. Try out different fluids like chocolate milk, sports drinks and flavored water to see what works best for you.

Get Started

Start off following these basic athlete hydration recommendations and fine tune as you go. You’ll figure out what the best timing is, how your body responds to the increase in fluid and most importantly you should see an improvement in athletic performance and energy.

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