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Published on October 20, 2020

football player drinking water

How to Properly Hydrate the Competitive Athlete

Our body is 50-65% water and proper hydration plays a role in everything from overall athletic performance and mental focus to immune health. Dehydration can negatively impact performance and cause early fatigue. Symptoms of dehydration include headache, dark urine, dizziness, fatigue, irritability, poor appetite, nausea and cramping.

But what’s the best way to hydrate? Water or sports drinks?

Why Water is a Winner

Water is adequate for events lasting less than 60 minutes. Focus on water intake all day, every day, not just around workouts. When it comes to fluid needs we are looking for half our body weight in ounces per day. For example, athletes that weigh 150 pounds would need a minimum of 75 ounces per day.

During active times, it’s recommended you consume 16-20 ounces of water several hours prior to exercise and about 8-12 ounces of water about 15 minutes before exercise. During training, take gulps of water about every 15-20 minutes, on average, but you might need more when it’s hot or your intensity is higher.

It can be helpful to weigh yourself before and after exercise to know how much fluid you need to replace. A good rule of thumb is to consume 16-24 ounces of fluid for every pound lost within about two hours of exercise.

You can also track hydration by checking urine color. The lighter, the better hydrated you are. Overall, aim to hydrate early and often, and always carry a water bottle.

Strengths of Sports Drinks

Though water should be your drink of choice, there are certain scenarios where sports drinks are exactly what your body needs. While water will quench your thirst, it won’t replace electrolytes lost in sweat. Electrolytes, like sodium, should replace what we lose in our sweat. It helps re-hydrate our bodies more efficiently.

Sports drinks offer varying amounts of carbohydrates and electrolytes that are meant to be consumed before, during or after competition.

  • Before: Sports drinks may be useful before an event to fine-tune fluid and carbohydrate levels. The carbohydrates in sports drinks are rapidly absorbed, making them easily available for working muscles. That’s why these drinks can be an ideal pre-workout fuel option for those early morning practices or training sessions where we don’t have time for a solid breakfast.
  • During: Since they’re primarily designed for use during exercise lasting more than 90 minutes, sports drinks may allow athletes to perform longer and more effectively. They provide carbohydrates that are rapidly absorbed to fuel the working muscles and the brain.
  • After: To help meet nutrition recovery goals after a workout, sports drinks help by replacing fluids and electrolytes lost in sweat. They also help replenish stored carbohydrates in the muscles. If there is limited time between training sessions or competition, drinks with higher sodium content may promote more effective rehydration. Remember, to fully optimize recovery, compliment your sports drinks with foods and other fluids that provide adequate carbohydrates and protein.

Keep in mind sports drinks are high in sugar and not ideal as an anytime beverage. Too many athletes like to drink Gatorade or Powerade all day, where the better choice for day-to-day hydration is water or nutrient-dense fluids like milk that provide protein, calcium and vitamin D.

Staying hydrated is an important part of training. Though there are many ways to stay hydrated, drinking plain water is best throughout the day. For sports drinks, use the 3-H rule:

  • Drink when it’s HOT
  • Drink when workouts are HARD
  • Drink when workouts are longer than an HOUR

Happy hydrating!

Anna Heronimus, RD, LN, is an Avera Sports Dietitian with the Avera Human Performance Center

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