Our guide to hydration and sports performance
Our guide to hydration and sports performance
As the human body is approximately 60% water, it should come as no surprise that staying hydrated is vital for optimal performance. This is true at any stage in life, but it’s especially prevalent during sports because we lose more water via perspiration while engaging in these activities. In this guide, we explain the importance of keeping hydrated as well as how to do so most effectively for sport.
Why is hydration important?
Hydration affects virtually all of our bodily functions. Water helps to regulate our body’s temperature, and to breakdown food, absorb nutrients and transport them around the body. Water also lubricates joints and serves as a catalyst for chemical reactions throughout our bodies. Not only this, but dehydration also means the loss of electrolytes, which play a huge role in regulating muscle and nerve functions. Losing just 2% of our body’s water supply can have detrimental effects on our body’s performance.
While performing physical activity, these processes increase in intensity. Hence, we must consume more water to replenish that which is lost. For example, nutrients and oxygen must be transported around the body faster in order to fuel muscles and joints must be lubricated to account for the added tension they’re put under.
The effects of dehydration on sport performance
Dehydration has numerous detrimental effects on performance. It leads to increased fatigue, making each movement require more effort to perform. Athletes will likely suffer a noticeable drop in strength, power, and endurance. Muscles are more likely to cramp while dehydrated too, thus increasing your likelihood of suffering injury.
Additionally – and perhaps most interestingly – blood volume decreases while dehydrated, increasing strain exerted on the heart and less efficient blood flow. This inhibits the vital flow of oxygen to muscles, furthering increasing the risk of injury. Dehydration also reduces your body’s ability to regulate its temperature due to the decrease in blood flow (especially in the skin) and decreased capacity to sweat. Overheating can cause dizziness, muscle spasms, and an increase in muscle cramps.
Other side effects of dehydration include headaches, nausea and difficulty concentrating – all of which are detrimental to sporting performance.
Factors that affect water loss during sport
There are a number of factors which increase the rate at which you’ll lose water during exercise. Some are to do with the individual. For example, your fitness level; those who are fitter and more accustomed to exercise, perhaps counter-intuitively, will tend to sweat more as their training has finely tuned their natural ability to cool the body down rapidly. Another factor is a person’s size and weight; those who are larger and heavier will generally perspire more too. This is because fat insulates the body and traps heat, so a higher body fat percentage will contribute to increased perspiration.
Other factors are external, such as the activity you’re performing and the environment in which you are performing it. The more intense an activity, the more you will sweat and the faster you will lose water. Also, hotter and more humid climates will lead to more sweating than cooler, more temperate environments.
To an extent, these factors are out of your control, but it’s important to be aware of them so that you can act accordingly to rehydrate yourself properly.
How to stay hydrated during sports
The key to staying hydrated during a race or competitive event is to begin hydrating yourself before the activity. Pre-sport hydration is often overlooked, but it’s crucial for remaining hydrated throughout your exercise and your performance while you do. Most people drink when they’re thirsty, but by this point it’s too late – you’re already dehydrated.
While the exact amount of water you should drink varies for every individual, as a guide it’s advisable to drink 500 ml of water approximately 30 minutes before you start exercising. The idea is that you go into the activity fully hydrated which will help to account for the dramatic increase in water loss you’re about to experience once you start sweating. Then, at regular intervals of 15-20 minutes, drinking 200-250 ml of water will help to maintain your hydration throughout your session.
Hydrating yourself consists of two major factors – replenishing water levels and replenishing electrolytes. If you exercise regularly, then a sports drink that contains electrolytes will be optimal for maintaining your hydration and performance levels. If your exercise session is short (under an hour), then only drinking water should suffice.
After your session is over, you’ll need to rehydrate. Even if you’ve been regularly drinking water and electrolytes, you’ll have lost a lot of fluid and minerals which you need to replenish. This will help to stave off the negative effects of dehydration detailed above for your next session, but will also help you to recover faster. Electrolytes help recovery as they provide a neutralizing alkaline to balance the lactic acid built up in the muscles during exercise, thus maintaining a healthy pH balance.
It’s important to note that, although unlikely to happen, it is possible to drink too much water. This can lead to feeling bloated, nauseated, and having a headache (not to mention needing to use the toilet a lot!). Make a mental note of how much water you drink after each activity in order to feel “normal” and healthy, and try not to exceed this.
- Pre-hydrate yourself by drinking 500ml of water 30 mins before exercise
- Maintain your hydration levels by drinking 200-250ml of water every 15-20 mins during exercise
- Rehydrate post-exercise by consuming an electrolyte-filled beverage, like a sports drink
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