Hydration for the Athlete Wendy Sterling, MS, RD, CSSD
Updated: Nov 14, 2019
Staying hydrated is an important nutrition strategy that can elevate your performance. Even a mild degree of dehydration can impair exercise performance as well as mental and cognitive performance. The best strategy is to be proactive with your hydration. This means you should begin hydrating upon waking up. Aim to consume about half of your body weight in fluid throughout the day. For example, if you weigh 170 pounds, aim for 85 fluid ounces per day. This is a general rule of thumb; the exact amount of fluid required will vary based on the type of exercise, duration and intensity of activity, body weight, and environmental conditions such as heat, humidity and altitude. Before your workout: Aim to ingest 16 ounces of fluid roughly two hours before starting your activity, which will allow enough time for absorption.
While at practice, you will want to maintain hydration levels. This may be challenging because athletes are so often focused on the field that they can easily get distracted and forget to drink. Heat and the sun can blunt the thirst mechanism, so you may not even feel thirsty. If an athlete were to wait until he or she felt thirsty, they might already be mildly dehydrated, and that would be too late! Aim for 6-12 ounces of fluid every 15-20 minutes during your workout. To maximize performance and minimize cramping, strive to hydrate on a schedule in order to most effectively maintain hydration levels. The best way to determine exactly how much fluid you need during activity is to weigh yourself before and after practice. Your goal is to be “weight neutral,” meaning that your weight is the same before and after practice. If you are losing 2% or more of your body weight after a workout, you might be at high risk for dehydration and cramping, and you should expect that your performance will suffer. Another way to evaluate hydration is to assess your urine color. Hydrated urine will be pale yellow. Dark urine could reflect dehydration. After practice, rehydration is an important aspect of recovery. For every pound lost after practice, you should add 20-24 fluid ounces of a sports drink or water to rehydrate. You will want to continue hydrating throughout the day to properly recover and to ensure you are adequately hydrated for the next day’s practice. Do I Need a Sports Drink? Water is the preferred drink for athletes, except for athletes who are working out intensely and for longer than an hour. Under those two circumstances, a sports drink can be a helpful adjunct for adding electrolytes, hydration and fuel for depleted muscles.
Another important factor in preventing cramps and aiding in the hydration process is sodium. Sodium triggers your thirst mechanism and helps to reduce fluid losses from passing urine. Large amounts of sodium are lost through sweat. Sodium should be replaced if:
You sweat heavily
You lose more than 2% of your body weight through practice
You practice longer than one hour
You experience cramping (either during or after a workout)
You practice on a hot sunny day
Add Gatorade, pretzels, pickles and salty snacks to boost sodium consumption. Taking a salt supplement is usually unnecessary.
In addition, adding calcium (as found in dairy products) and potassium (found in bananas, fruits and vegetables) may also help to reduce cramping.
Aim to drink water or sports drinks before, during and after all activity.
Don’t rely on thirst, because by then it might be too late!
Assess urine color to determine hydration; pale yellow (like lemonade) reflects good hydration, and dark yellow (like apple juice) reflects dehydration.
Weigh yourself before and after workouts. For every pound lost, add 20-24 ounces of water or a sports drink after a workout.
Add sodium from sports drinks, salty foods and snacks, if needed.
You can also try adding extra calcium from dairy sources (milk, cheese, yogurt) and potassium from fruits and vegetables to reduce cramping.
National Athletic Trainers’ Association Position Statement: Fluid Replacement for Athletes. nata.org/sites/default/files/fluidreplacementsforathletes.pdf
Wendy Sterling, MS, RD, CSSD
Wendy is a Registered Dietitian and a Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics in the Bay Area in California. She specializes in sports nutrition, eating disorders and weight management.
Wendy is the team nutritionist for the Oakland Athletics and consults for the Menlo School and for The Healthy Teen Project. She has consulted for the Golden State Warriors, the New York Jets, and New York Islanders. She has been on the Clinical Advisory Board of Project HEAL, a nonprofit organization created to aid in the funding for the treatment of eating disorders since it was created in 2008. Wendy maintains a private practice in Menlo Park and Los Altos, California.
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