Basic Principles of Sports Hydration

Hydration is as important as food intake for sports activities. Even slight dehydration can cause a significant drop in performance and, if it becomes severe, an unrecoverable fainting spell and even life-threatening.

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We Are Water

Water makes up on average 60% of our body composition, reaching 85% in the case of the brain, 83% in the blood and 75% in the muscles. With this data, it is easy to deduce that proper hydration is of vital importance for the optimal maintenance of all our bodily functions. It is also essential in the processes of temperature regulation, due to its important participation in the content of the blood and sweat, a natural protection system to lower body temperature.

Hydration Water and Health Research Institute Hydration - Water and Health Research Institute

But our body has no water storage capacity to replenish the losses that occur mainly through breathing, urine, feces and sweating. These losses are estimated, on average, at around two liters in adult women and 2.5 liters in men, with their daily activity. And the competent bodies recommend that 80% should be replenished through direct fluid intake and the remaining 20% from food. The objective of this intake is to maintain water balance, consuming a similar amount of water to that which we lose.

Water loss through sweating is significantly increased by three factors:

  • Levels of Intense Physical Exertion
  • High Temperatures
  • High percentages of relative air humidity

All of these circumstances can occur in sports practice and it is easy for all three to come together, especially in summer. With the added problem that with sweating, in addition to water, we lose mineral salts, especially sodium, potassium and magnesium, which are essential trace elements for regulating a multitude of bodily functions, many of them related to sports performance. These are what give the salty taste to your sweat. To avoid dehydration during sports practice, we have to cover these losses with specific guidelines, in addition to the daily needs explained in the previous paragraph.

Effects of Dehydration on Athletes

The effect of dehydration on athletic output can be manifested with water losses of as little as 1% or 2% of body weight, but with higher percentages, we can incur even serious health risks. Let's look at the different degrees of dehydration, according to the percentage of water lost over body weight, its symptoms and its consequences (General Council of Physical and Sports Education, 2018)

  • Mild dehydration (between 1% and 5%): This usually occurs when we feel thirsty, as this is already a symptom of dehydration and one of the body's natural alarms. To avoid this, when practicing sports we should follow hydration guidelines appropriate to the conditions in which it takes place, with frequent intakes, as we will see in the following section. Thirst may be accompanied by fatigue, weakness, malaise, headache and increased body temperature. Thirst may be accompanied by fatigue, weakness, malaise, headache and increased body temperature.

  • Moderate dehydration (between 6% and 8%): Symptoms of moderate dehydration can include fatigue, headache, dizziness, nausea and vomiting, unsteadiness, redness and dryness of the skin, poor sweat production or cold sweat, insufficient urine production or urine that is dark in color, and, even, difficulty speaking and coordinating movements. We already incur serious risks such as the dreaded heat stroke, which can be fatal. In the face of these symptoms, it is recommended to rest or stop our activity for 20 to 30 minutes and rehydrate gradually, avoiding drinking too much liquid all at once and, above all, not too cold, as a very sudden change in body temperature can lead to cardiac arrest.

  • Severe dehydration (between 9% and 11%): We may experience muscle spasms, balance problems, mental confusion, as well as a significant and rapid increase in heart rate and temperature. It can be life-threatening and requires immediate medical attention.

Dehydration in male and female athletes

How to Hydrate Correctly

The first tip is to maintain healthy daily hydration habits, replenishing between 2 and 2.5 liters, depending on your size, usual activity and external temperature, as we recommended in the first section. However, when performing sports activities, we must follow specific guidelines to cover the losses of water and mineral salts generated before, during and after exercise. Let's look at the three phases:

1 - Pre-Exercise

It is recommended to drink about 400-600 ml of water alone or enriched with mineral salts, depending on the intensity and duration of the exercise to be performed, between 1 and 2 hours before starting the activity.

If we are going to perform long duration activities or with extreme temperatures, it is highly recommended, apart from hydrating ourselves very well the previous days, to carry out a overload of mineral salts between 1 and 2 days before the outing. This is the same strategy followed with carbohydrate overloading, and we can do it with isotonic compounds, which include carbohydrates, or with mineral salt complexes without carbohydrates or calories, which we will leave for feeding.

2 - During Exercise

You should drink frequently with small intakes every 10-15 minutes, ingesting between 500 and 1,000 cc. of liquid every hour, depending on your size and weight, the intensity of the exercise and the temperature and humidity conditions. For an average cyclist, moderate exercise and non-extreme temperatures, no less than 500 cc. on time. We will increase this amount if conditions become more intense. And you should never wait until you are thirsty, because, as we have said before, thirst is a symptom that dehydration has already begun. By dosing the intake in regular intakes, you guarantee the continuous replenishment of liquids and facilitate rapid digestion and absorption by the body. If you ingest at once quantities above 250-300 cc. digestion will be much slower, causing a reduction in performance and delaying the delivery of nutrients to the blood. You could even experience gastrointestinal problems.

Water will be sufficient for moderate-intensity exercise lasting less than one hour. For very intense exercises, with extreme temperatures or longer duration, it is advisable to enrich the water with mineral salts, to compensate for those we lose through sweat, and even with hydrates, depending on the strategy we decide on. There are three types of these drinks, according to the composition and osmorality of the compound, which is the concentration of particles that the liquid ingested has:

  • Isotonics are beverages that have a level of osmorbidity similar to that of body fluids with water, carbohydrates and mineral salts. Its absorption by the body is fast and very easy and stable, normally free of gastrointestinal or other problems. It is the most commonly used formula replacing water alone or complementing it, depending on the duration of exercise, and contains a mixture of fast and slow absorption carbohydrates, to avoid sudden rises and falls in blood sugar, and minerals such as sodium, potassium, magnesium, calcium, chlorides and phosphates, as well as vitamins. There are also variants with caffeine or other stimulants. In very long duration activities, over 4-5 hours, it is advisable to alternate isotonic or hypotonic beverages with plain water.

  • Hypotonics are beverages with an osmorality lower than that of blood, such as simple water or compounds containing only mineral salts and no carbohydrates. This last option has become widespread among athletes who prefer to leave carbohydrate intake for natural foods, bars or gels. They are also widely used in the overloading of mineral salts in the days prior to the activity, so as not to provide added calories, and in training without carbohydrates, carried out to boost fat consumption. Hypotonics are also rapidly absorbed.

  • Hypertonics are those compounds with osmorality higher than that of blood, very rich in sugars, usually simple and rapidly absorbed. They are not recommended for sports use, although many of the so-called sports drinks that can be found in large supermarkets, marketed by generalist brands, are of this type. We do not recommend the intake of these drinks, but if we have to drink them because we have no other choice, it is advisable to reduce their sugar percentage by adding water, to bring their osmorbidity closer to that of isotonic liquids and avoid gastrointestinal problems.

Isotonic and hypotonic supplements are available in various formats. But the most common are powder concentrates or gels that are mixed with water, using the doses recommended by the brand itself. And they are available in various types of packaging:

  • Large containers to prepare at home and carry all the necessary amount in water bottles and hydration backpacks.

  • Single-dose satchets or sticks and tablets that are lightweights and easy to carry, and allow us to prepare the mixtures comfortably with water that we get on the route. This guarantees the availability of this type of beverages in any place where water is available, no matter how long the route.

Isotonic and hypotonic supplements

3 - Post-Exercise:

Post-exercise fluid and salt replenishment is essential for proper recovery. A correct protocol would have to include water, mineral salts and carbohydrates within what is called the metabolic window, which lasts about 45 minutes from the end of the exercise. The most advisable, if we need a quick recovery to face new efforts the next day, would be to take a specific recuperator of those made by sports nutrition brands, such as Stress Nutril from Nutrisport, with a careful composition that will provide everything we need to replenish fluids, salts, carbohydrates, vitamins and amino acids, ensuring optimal muscle recovery.Stress Nutril from Nutrisport, with a careful composition that will provide us with everything we need to replenish fluids, salts, carbohydrates, vitamins and amino acids, ensuring optimal muscle recovery. With this intake, we have laid the first bricks of our foundation for recovery. We can shower, change, and then have our usual meal. With these guidelines, we will facilitate recovery to continue with our activity in the best possible conditions.

Stress Nutril by Nutrisport

To complete the information, in this video from our Mundo Mammoth channel, we show you the different cycling hydration systems that will allow you to carry the necessary liquids for the particular sport you’re practicing in the most appropriate way:

At Mammoth stores and in our online store you will find the best brands of sports nutrition and hydration, and the complements and hydration-related accessories for all cycling disciplines.

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