The mercury is rising in the Northern Hemisphere which means the thermostat is cranked up, the humidity is high, and I should invest in Skratch Labs from the amount of Exercise Hydration mix I am consuming!  All joking aside, exercising in the heat is something all of us do, and this blog post will be my attempt to shine a little light on the ins and outs of exercise hydration.  First things first though, what is hydration?

Hydration is consuming liquids to maintain fluid homeostasis in the body.

So, think of hydration, or staying hydrated, as keeping the fluids in your body topped up by drinking.  Your body will maintain homeostasis of its fluids by signaling you to drink via thirst, or urinating when it has too much.

How Do I Know If I am Hydrated?

Knowing if you are hydrated is pretty simple, just look in the toilet after you urinate.  The urine should be clear, or a very pale yellow.  Anything darker than that means you should drink up!

hydrationchart

What Should I Do If I Become Dehydrated?

Well, the simple answer to that question is drink something (duh)!  But, what that “something” is can make all the difference.  The ideal oral rehydration solution should be,  according to WHO and UNICEF, 6 teaspoons of sugar and 1/2 teaspoon of salt per liter of water (1).  BE WARNED, adding more sugar and/or salt to the mixture will change its osmolarity and make it less isotonic.  As the solution becomes less isotonic, your body will actually become MORE dehydrated because it will need to take fluid out of your cells to dilute the solution!  For this reason, I tell my athletes to drink their fluids and eat their calories, i.e. don’t drink your calories.  This is a very important concept to understand, so if that was confusing, check out this excellent video from Dr. Alan Lim explaining this concept a bit further:

How Do I Figure Out How Much To Drink?

Simple answer again, drink when you’re thirsty.  Thirst is an excellent indicator of your body’s fluid homeostasis and is a mechanism human beings have used since the beginning of time with a rather good success rate.  But, since this is a blog about exercise science and becoming a better athlete, optimal fluid intake is something we should discuss.  The easiest way to find out your optimal fluid intake is to perform a sweat-rate test.

Sweat Rate Testing

Performing a sweat rate test is rather easy, all that is required to do is to weigh yourself pre, and then again post-ride.  During the course of the ride, drink as you would normally. Also, be sure to be in your birthday suit for your post-ride weigh in.  Then, to calculate your sweat rate…

  • A = Weight lost during exercise, in ounces.
  • B = Fluid consumed during exercise, in ounces.
  • C = Length of exercise session.
  • Sweat Rate = (A + B) / C

For example: I weigh 140 lbs and decide to ride for 1 hour on a really hot and humid day whilst consuming 1 bottle (24 oz) of fluid.  After my ride, I weigh 139.5 lbs.  So, my sweat rate would be (8 oz +  24 oz) / 60 = 53 oz of fluid per hour.  I recommend doing this test throughout the course of the season and keeping a log to figure out how your sweat rate changes at 70, 75, 80, 85, etc. degree days.  Doing so will ensure you are optimally hydrating throughout your workout.

Hydration Strategies

Staying hydrated is all about drinking throughout the course of the day and especially your workout.  However, some athletes become excited during a race or hard group ride, or become fatigued mentally and forget to drink altogether.  Forgetting to drink spells disaster for your performance as a drop in body weight of 2% will begin to modify your work rate ability, while a drop in only 5% will decrease your work rate by 30% (2).  So, needless to say, keeping topped up on fluids is crucial!  Here are some ideas to make sure you keep drinking over the course of a long and hot ride…

  • Set an alarm on your head unit to beep every 15 minutes.  Doing so will remind you to drink.
  • Change up the flavor of your drink on your long rides.  Doing this will prevent your tastebuds from getting sick of the same flavor (palate fatigue).  Also, try to consume rather light tasting drinks, this will prolong the time before your tastebuds say no.
  • Pre-cool your body.  Doing this will lower your core temperature, draw-out the increase in your sweat rate, and allow your body to maintain its fluids.  This can be done by wearing an ice vest during your warm up pre-race, eating a popsicle or something else frozen, and/or putting an ice pack around your neck to cool your carotid arteries.
  • Keep your body cool during exercise.  Doing this will have the same effect as pre-cooling.  This can be accomplished by consuming cold fluids, wiping sweat away with a towel, spraying cold water on your head and hands (a lot of arteries in those areas), and/or putting ice in pantyhose and shoving it between your jersey and back to allow the ice water to drip across your body #protip.
  • Know how many ounces your water bottles are.  This may seem obvious, but you would be surprised that most athletes do not know how big their bottles are.  Knowing this will allow you to optimally hydrate after figuring out your sweat rate.
  • Make sure you keep drinking after you are done exercising until you reach your pre-exercise body weight.  I recommend drinking 1.5x the amount of fluid weight you lost during exercise.
  • Follow the directions on the drink mix.  Remember, more is not better in this arena.  If you change the osmolarity of the solution you are drinking you will further dehydrate yourself!
  • Eat foods that are high in water throughout the day.  Doing this is an easy way to hydrate if you don’t feel like drinking a ton of fluid.  Think fruits and veggies.

Maintaining fluid homeostasis and developing an optimal hydration plan during exercise should be a part of evolving and maturing as an athlete due to the huge drawbacks of becoming dehydrated during training and competition.  Make sure you understand how much you need to be consuming by performing sweat rate tests throughout the year as temperature and intensity of the workout will modify it.  Ensure you are consuming a drink that is isotonic to actually rehydrate you.  Please don’t drink your calories.  And above all else, JUST DRINK!

What About Electrolytes?

When we think about the word electrolyte, many people think of sports drinks. Sports drinks are marketed towards athletes to help replenish the electrolytes endurance athletes will lose through sweat. However, there is much more to electrolytes and their importance than just refueling with a sports drink after training. Not only that, but there are also some healthy alternatives to traditional sports drinks. 

Let’s take a look at what electrolytes are and why they are so important. We will also explore four different ways endurance athletes can replenish the electrolytes they lose during training. 

Electrolytes play essential roles in the human body, and they help to regulate nerve as well as muscle function. They also help hydrate the body and help to balance blood pressure. Scientifically speaking, they are chemicals that when mixed with water, conduct electricity. Our muscles, as well as neurons, rely heavily on proper electrolyte balance. 

The following are the electrolytes present in our body: 

  • Sodium
  • Calcium
  • Potassium
  • Magnesium
  • Bicarbonate
  • Phosphate
  • Chloride

How are Electrolytes Balanced in the Body?

Electrolytes are kept in balance by our kidney as well as specific hormones. The kidneys help to filter electrolytes that may be in excess, and certain hormones will work to balance out the levels present in the body. We run into problems when these electrolyte concentrations are just too high for our kidneys and hormones to balance. This is when we can start to experience symptoms of an electrolyte imbalance. 

The Importance of Electrolytes for Endurance Athletes

Electrolytes play such an important role when it comes to the health of the endurance athlete. If we go back to talking about how our muscles and neurons rely on electrolyte balance, it makes sense that we would experience muscle cramping if one of these electrolytes become out of balance. Not only that, but an electrolyte imbalance can also cause muscle weakness and issues with blood pressure

While all electrolytes play an important role in the endurance athletes health, sodium, as well as potassium, happen to be the two that athletes tend to experience imbalances with most often. 

Electrolyte Imbalance Symptoms

So, what exactly does an electrolyte imbalance look like? Here are some of the classic symptoms to watch out for.

  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Muscle cramping
  • Muscle weakness
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Fast or irregular heartbeat

Four Ways to Replenish Your Electrolytes

While we know how important proper electrolyte balance is, it’s important to understand how to balance these electrolytes. Let’s take a look at four ways to do that that doesn’t involve drinking any artificially flavored sports drinks. 

#1 Homemade Electrolyte Drink: Skip the artificial sugar-filled sports drink, and make your own electrolyte drink to refuel your body after training to help nourish your body with exactly what it needs. You can whip together a healthy sports drink like this one using one quart of unsweetened coconut water, ⅛ tsp. pink himalayan sea salt, a teaspoon of calcium magnesium powder, ¼ cup of freshly squeezed orange juice, and two tablespoon of a natural sweetener like raw honey. 

#2 Coconut Water: Many endurance athletes turn to coconut water instead of sugary sports drinks as it acts as an excellent all-natural electrolyte replacer. Coconut water contains sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus. One of the great things about coconut water is that it is super rich in potassium which can help support rehydration after intense exercise. Coconut water makes a great electrolyte replenishing beverage so long as you stick to unsweetened, and choose a natural option that doesn’t contain any added colors or artificial ingredients. Make sure you’re reading the food labels closely!

#3 Diet Counts: While we often think about beverages when it comes to replacing lost electrolytes, you can also replace some of what you lost through the foods you eat as well. Before and after training, strive to consume lots of dark leafy greens, and starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes, as well as bananas and avocados. All of these foods are rich in magnesium as well as potassium which can help bring these electrolytes up after intense training. Not only are they a great source of potassium and magnesium, but they are overall very healthy foods to add to a nutrient-dense diet to help support endurance training. 

You will also want to make sure you are consuming enough hydrating foods to help prevent dehydration while restoring electrolytes. Some excellent options include cucumbers, celery, watermelon, bell peppers, and kiwis. 

#4 Make an Electrolyte Replenishing Post Training Shake: Another way to help replenish your electrolytes after intense training is to blend up an electrolyte-boosting post training shake. Try blending together one cup of unsweetened almond milk, a frozen banana, one handful of dark leafy greens, a tablespoon of raw unsweetened cocoa powder, a tablespoon of chia seeds, and a pinch of pink Himalayan sea salt. You will get plenty of potassium and magnesium in this shake, and you can add a pinch of pink Himalayan sea salt to help replenish your sodium levels. You also don’t need to use pink Himalayan sea salt, but it usually contains higher levels of minerals compared to ‘table salt’.

The Takeaway

As a breakdown of everything we talked about when it comes to the importance of electrolytes and endurance athletes, here are some key point to remember.

  • During intense training, the body loses sodium and potassium fairly quickly which means we have to be mindful of how we replenish these electrolytes during and after training.
  • Fatigue, dizziness, headaches, nausea, and vomiting are all common symptoms of an electrolyte deficiency.
  • Ditch the sports drinks, and try making your own using coconut water as your base.
  • Focus on foods to help boost your electrolytes.
  • Make an electrolyte replenishing post-training shake to help replenish lost electrolytes.

The best way to prevent an electrolyte imbalance is to keep on top of your electrolytes both before, during, and after training. Sip on a homemade sports drink during training, consume an electrolyte-boosting shake after training, and add a pinch of pink Himalayan sea salt to things like dark leafy greens, and starchy vegetables. The better you keep up with your electrolyte intake, the better chance you will have at preventing the unwanted symptoms that come along with an electrolyte imbalance and feeling your best throughout your training.

References:

Nancy Choi, MD. Everything you Need to Know About Electrolytes.https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/153188.php  

American Heart Association. How Potassium Can Help Control Blood Pressure.https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/high-blood-pressure/changes-you-can-make-to-manage-high-blood-pressure/how-potassium-can-help-control-high-blood-pressure

Kimberly Holland. All About Electrolyte Disorders. https://www.healthline.com/health/electrolyte-disorders#symptoms

Katie Wells. Natural Sports Electrolyte Drink Recipe. https://wellnessmama.com/2575/natural-sports-drink/

Kyle Levers, M.S. CSCS. Nature’s Gatorade: Effectiveness of Coconut Water on Electrolyte and Carbohydrate Replacement. https://www.huffinesinstitute.org/Resources/Articles/ArticleID/413/NATURES-GATORADE-Effectiveness-of-Coconut-Water-on-Electrolyte-and-Carbohydrate-Replacement

http://www.who.int/cholera/technical/en/

 http://www.humankinetics.com/excerpts/excerpts/dehydration-and-its-effects-on-performance

Shayne Gaffney

About the Author Shayne Gaffney

Shayne holds a bachelors degree in Health Science in Professional Development and Advanced Patient Care, is a licensed physical therapy assistant in Massachusetts, a USA Cycling Level 1 (expert level) certified Coach, a USA Cycling Power Based Training certified Coach, Precision Nutrition Level 1 certified Coach, a US Military Endurance Sports (USMES) affiliated Coach, and USA Olympic Committee Safe Sport certified. He is the owner and head Coach of GC Coaching, Workout Content Editor at Zwift, the creator of P2 Coached Computraining, and the creator of Zwift’s “Build Me Up” Flexible Training Plan. He has been published in Bicycling Magazine, the TrainingPeaks blog, and Zwift Insider. He can be contacted directly via info@gaffneycyclingcoaching.com

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