Water: The best ergogenic aid for sports performance

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CHARACTERISTIC You’ve all heard that you should drink eight glasses of water a day, but how much should you drink if you exercise? Better yet, how much should an endurance athlete drink?

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First, let’s define what an endurance athlete is. Some say an endurance athlete is simply someone who needs to consume food before the duration of an event; others will say he is an athlete who competes or trains for more than two hours.

Whatever the definition, endurance sports are characterized by sustained physical and mental stress over long periods of time. Athletes who compete in 100 miles of running (ultramarathons) or 140.6 miles of swimming, cycling and running (such as the Ironman triathlon) are considered endurance athletes.

How does hydration affect sports performance?

An endurance athlete can lose a large amount of water through sweat while training or competing at up to 2 liters per hour. The amount of fluid lost depends on a number of variables: the temperature and humidity level during the performance, the intensity of the exercise performed, the athlete’s body composition and metabolism, and even the athlete’s diet.

When this fluid is not replaced, athletic performance will suffer. A 2% loss of body water through sweat can impair the ability to compete, and a 4% loss can result in the body’s inability to cool itself during exercise. Not only does dehydration significantly reduce sports performance, it can lead to heat stroke, heat illness, heat exhaustion or, in extreme cases, death. It can also adversely affect breathing, kidney function and gastrointestinal function.

It is clear that adequate hydration plays a role in thermoregulation and cardiovascular changes during exercise. Even mild dehydration (less than 1% body weight loss) can impair performance and affect core temperature and rate of perceived exertion.

Since the human body is almost 60% fluid, the most beneficial ergogenic aid is water. Working to prevent dehydration during exercise is one of the most helpful efforts to improve exercise performance; fluid replacement during training and during an event must be a priority.

What are the hydration needs of endurance athletes?

To maintain ideal performance and well-being, athletes should engage in fluid management before and during an event, with the goal of being euhydrated (optimum total body water content).

Unfortunately, athletes cannot rely on thirst perception to regulate fluid balance; thirst generally does not appear until an athlete has lost a significant amount of fluid through sweat. However, there are several objective ways to measure fluid loss. Athletes should make it a habit to weigh themselves before and after exercise to manage their hydration and determine sweat rate.

The athlete should consume 3 cups of fluids for every pound lost during exercise and try to consume 6-8 ounces of water or sports drink every 5-15 minutes during exercise. They may need training to tolerate drinking so often over a period of time and adapt to hotter or humid climates.

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In addition to water, sweat contains minerals such as sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium. Of these, sodium is the most important mineral to be replaced during exercise due to its importance to optimal functioning of the body and the significant amount that is lost during sweating.

Blood sodium levels help maintain blood pressure and regulate the body’s water balance. Increasing salt availability during heavy training in the heat has been shown to help prevent hyponatremia, a condition that can occur when blood sodium levels are abnormally low. Hyponatremia can cause loss of energy, fatigue, confusion, headache, muscle weakness or twitching, vomiting, nausea, seizures, or even coma.

The American College of Sports Medicine recommends ingesting sodium during exercise (300-600 milligrams per hour or 1.72.9 grams of salt) when experiencing large sodium losses through sweat. Research has shown that consuming liquids with a higher concentration of sodium (electrolyte sports drinks) before exercise reduces the occurrence of hyponatremia during prolonged exercise e.g.some recent studies even suggest that sodium phosphate loading can increase maximal oxygen uptake, raise anaerobic threshold, and improve endurance capacity by 8-10%.

When the temperature starts to rise in Southern Utah, hydration is a top priority. Remember that of all the hours of training and proper nutrition, water is the most important ergogenic aid. Drink!

See you on the trails, in the field and in the field.

Written by TIFFANY GUST, MS, USA Triathlon, CISSN.

This article was originally published in May/June 2023 issue of St. George Health and Wellness magazine.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2023, all rights reserved.

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