Fluid Balance: The Importance of Proper Hydration

Sometimes the simplest things are the ones easiest to overlook. When you’ve got a supplement plan, training schedule, and a diet to try to stick to, remembering to make sure you’re taking on enough water can easily slip through the mental cracks. Even experienced athletes can be unaware of just how important proper hydration is, not just to your workouts, but to your overall health.

Water is by far the most abundant chemical substance in the body, making up some 95% of the brain and 75% of muscle tissue. It also serves a number of important functions that keep you healthy. It acts as a messenger, a building material, and as a solvent delivering nutrients. It helps regulate body temperature, maintain cell pressure and keeps the concentrations of various body fluids in check. It’s unsurprising then that even mild dehydration can have such a big effect on the way our bodies work.

Performance

One of the most obvious effects of dehydration is muscle cramps. You need water to make your muscles contract and relax and you need water to transport nutrients to the muscle tissue and carry away the waste. If the concentrations of electrolytes in your body aren’t kept within healthy ranges then nerve function will be impaired, and as nerves control the muscles, performance and control can be set back even further. If you’re trying to pack on some muscle, making sure you’re maintaining a proper fluid balance is essential.

What’s less immediately obvious however is just how badly dehydration can impair your performance across the board. Studies have shown that a 2% liquid loss correlates to about a 10% loss in power right across the board. If you’re an elite athlete whose success is dependent on fine margins and who trains to extract every last drop of performance, a drop of 10% can instantly cancel out gains you’ve made over years of hard training. Even for recreational athletes this loss of power can damage the progress you’ve made and keep you from achieving your personal goals. All those after work weight sessions and weekend runs won’t have been for nothing, but you won’t be seeing the gains you expected.

Other symptoms to look out for

The effects of dehydration range from mild to severe. Feeling light headed or dizzy, cramping muscles, or a noticeably dry mouth are early warning signs that you’re not taking on enough fluids. You might stop sweating altogether even during intense exercise while your body tries to retain as much water as it can, putting you at risk of heatstroke. Symptoms of heatstroke include faster breathing, a faster heartbeat, extreme mental fatigue (possibly including disorientation and delusions), loss of consciousness and seizures. If you or someone you’re training with starts exhibiting any of these symptoms then call for immediate emergency medical attention, as untreated heatstroke can be fatal.

Principles of proper hydration

  • Keep taking in fluids throughout the day rather than waiting until you feel thirsty
  • 300 - 500ml of fluids 20 - 30 minutes before the training session to make sure you’re optimally prepared for your workout
  • Avoid excessively cold drinks, 10-15°C is ideal
  • Another 300 - 500ml sports drink will help replace the water and electrolytes lost through training.
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