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One of the key components of a sports nutrition performance plan is athlete hydration. Since athletes require an increased amount of fluids to maintain activity, they should prioritize staying hydrated and rehydrating after their event.
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:
- Begin training and games well hydrated
- Minimize fluid loss during exercise and avoid excessive dehydration
- 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?
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.
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.
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 weight 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?
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Steph Magill, MS, RD, CD, FAND has over 20 years in public health and nutrition experience. As a performance nutritionist, Stephanie specializes in sports nutrition and provides simple and actionable information so that athletes can be well fueled for high performance on and off the field. Stephanie has a Master’s Degree in Nutrition and is a Fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.