Hydration for Athletes

Hydration for Athletes

Athletes should monitor their hydration status regularly.

Proper hydration for athletes is vital for top performance. It plays a significant role in overall health, athletic performance, and recovery. Dehydration can impair physical and mental performance, increase the risk of heat-related illness, and delay recovery.

However, over-hydration is also a concern. Over-hydration can lead to dangerous electrolyte imbalances, while under-hydration can lead to dangerously low cellular fluid levels. There is a balance that athletic trainers need to help athletes find to ensure proper hydration for optimal performance and recovery.

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Hydration for athletes in pre-training

Prior to training and competition, general guidelines recommend that athletes consume about 16-20 ounces (about 500-600 ml) of water two to three hours before exercise. They also need to consume an additional 8-10 ounces (about 250-300 ml) about 20-30 minutes ahead of training or competition.

Although these guidelines are general, the key is to establish a routine that ensures athletes are well-hydrated before they train and compete versus reliant only on fluids consumed during activity.

Hydration for athletes during training and competition

Fluids are lost during activity due to sweating. To offset fluid loss, athletes should consume fluids regularly during training and competition. The American Council on Exercise (ACE) recommends drinking 17 to 20 ounces of water two hours before exercising and consuming seven to 10 ounces of fluid every 10 to 20 minutes while exercising.

For activities that last over 60 minutes, athletes should consider consuming a sports drink that replenishes lost electrolytes and carbohydrates. In general, water is the best choice for hydration; however, for intense or prolonged exercise, sports drinks can be beneficial if the caloric intake is considered.

Post-training and competition

Fluids are lost during training and competition even with rigorous before and during activity hydration measures. It is crucial that athletes rehydrate after exercise by consuming fluids and electrolytes lost during sweating. The general guideline is to consume approximately 16 - 24 ounces (about 500-750 ml) of fluid for each pound (approximately 0.45 kg) of body weight lost during exercise. To determine how much body weight is lost during training, weigh the athlete before and after training. The difference in weight represents fluids lost.

Individualized hydration plans

Hydration needs differ between athletes. Factors such as age, gender, body weight, sweat rate, fitness level, climate, acclimation to the environment, exercise intensity, and personal preferences should be considered in developing individualized hydration plans. Athletes should monitor their hydration status regularly. Urine color, thirst, and body weight changes can provide valuable indicators of hydration status.

It is also important to consider day-to-day factors that may affect hydration, such as illness, medication, and alcohol consumption. The key is to adjust the hydration plan accordingly for everyone.

  • Electrolyte intake: Electrolyte balance is vital to health. An imbalance can affect performance or worse, become dangerous. To make certain that electrolytes are maintained, for prolonged or intense exercise lasting longer than 60 - 90 minutes and for exercise in hot and/or humid conditions, ask athletes to consume beverages containing electrolytes like sodium and potassium among others to help maintain electrolyte balance.
  • Sweat rate: Determine an athlete's sweat rate by measuring weight loss during exercise. Weigh the athlete before and after training and calculate the difference. Each pound (approximately 0.45 kg) of weight lost represents about 16 ounces (about 500 ml) of fluid loss that needs to be replaced.
  • Climate: Environmental conditions, such as temperature and humidity, influence fluid needs. In hot and humid conditions, athletes may need to increase their fluid intake to compensate for higher sweat rates. Adjust fluid intake based on environmental conditions, especially in hot and humid weather.
  • Exercise intensity: Intense exercise increases fluid loss and therefore increases the need to hydrate adequately before, during, and after training and competition to meet fluid requirements and maintain electrolyte balance.

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Under- and over-hydration

Adequate hydration is ideal. However, fluid balance changes, and sometimes athletes become dehydrated or even overhydrated. The signs of dehydration include:

  • Dark yellow urine
  • Thirst
  • Fatigue or dizziness
  • Dry mouth and throat
  • Decreased urine output
  • Headache

Athletic trainers need to be aware of the signs of dehydration and monitor both the athlete and environmental conditions to make certain hydration is maintained.

While it's crucial to stay hydrated, overhydration (hyponatremia) can also be a concern. Hyponatremia occurs when sodium levels in the blood become too diluted. The signs of hyponatremia include:

  • Nausea
  • Headache
  • Confusion
  • Seizures
  • Coma

Maintaining proper hydration is essential for athletes to optimize performance and recovery and reduce the risk of climate-related illnesses. Athletic trainers should work with a sports nutritionist and healthcare providers to help athletes develop and implement personalized hydration plans.

For the most up to date guidelines on hydration from the American Council on Exercise (ACE), click here.

This article was written by Amy Ashmore, PhD.

This article was written by Jami Cooley

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