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Hydration Strategies Part 1: Drinking

Tips from the Cyborg

Tips from the Cyborg

Hydration Strategies Part 1: Drinking

Touch wood, I’ve never had a cramp in an event. I rarely suffer from them at all. I’ve seen team mates fall over, unable to go on due to cramps. I’ve heard many people talk about them. But I’ve never cramped up in an event. Not even long distance, single-discipline events such as the Wild Endurance. While it may be luck, possibly just the way I’m built, I reckon it has much more to do with my hydration strategies, which can be summed up as follows:

  1. Drink regularly, regardless of whether you’re thirsty or not.
  2. Drink a mix of fresh water and sports drinks during medium to long events.
Ocean view
Sooo much water

Drink regularly, regardless of thirst.

The instructor of my first senior first aid course said that by the time we’re thirsty, we’re already dehydrated. So you have to drink before you’re thirsty. During the Wild Endurance we set timers for 20 minutes. Every 20 minutes Doc Runaway’s alarm would sound, and we’d all have a drink - thirsty or not. By the time we were going through the cold, early morning stages when normally we wouldn’t have even thought about a drink, we had a Pavlovian response-as soon as we heard that beeping, we’d be sipping down the water without even thinking about it. None of us had any problems with cramps, or feeling bad at all during the event.

Drinking regularly also meant that we were just sipping every time; we’d just take in a little bit of water which would have been enough to replace what we’d lost in that 20 minutes since the last drink. Gulping down huge amounts of water when you get thirsty leads to problems of it’s own - such as blood rushing to your stomach to warm it up and process it - diverting energy from your muscles. Not to mention that uncomfortable feeling of water sloshing around your belly when you’re trying to get on with it!

Sand
... sandy plains with no hope of water, you have to expect everything in a race!

Now, timing and how much you drink will vary depending on a lot of factors, such as what you’re doing, temperature, how much you sweat, and your own metabolism. But there are ways you can determine just how much you need. One of the more interesting methods I found was to weigh yourself before and after training. Chances are, any weight lost would be water, so you’d want to take on at least that much water next time.

Another post-training method lies in checking out the colour of your urine after training. If it’s nice and clear, you’re fully hydrated. If it’s cloudy and yellow, you’re dehydrated. If it’s bright yellow and relatively clear, you’re taking too much vitamin b and should probably skip the Beroccas for a while!

If you find you’re thirsty during, or dehydrated after a training session using the 20 minute drinking interval, shorten it and carry more water. Sure, every litre of water is an extra kilogram to carry, but when you consider that your performance can drop by as much as 30% [*1], and (at least in my case) an extra kilogram is 1.3% of the load I’m carrying (and that’s just my body weight), it seems pretty worthwhile to take on the extra load.

Drink a Mix of sports drink and fresh water

What to drink while you’re out is also a factor. Advertising tells us that sports drinks are the best way to replace fluid while you’re exercising. We lose salts and electrolytes when we sweat, therefore we need to ingest more as we go to replace our losses - and to help our body’s ability to absorb all of this water we’re regularly taking in That does make sense, and depending on the event/activity, using sports drinks is a good idea. But I’d only use them for more intense activities, such as sprint events and not for less-intense activities such as a longer hike. You’ll be snacking during longer activities, which will go a long way to replacing your salts and the like.

Variety of drinks in a fridge
A mix of bladders with sports drinks and water.

During more intense activities, such as an AROC adventure race, I carry a mix of sports drink and water. I’ll carry fresh water in my backpack, and have a sports drink mix in a bottle on my bike. I can only take so much of the sports drink on at any given time, even as a weak mix, it gets too sickly for me to drink as often as I should. If I had to choose between the two, I’d take water. You can always get your electrolytes from gels or Gu chomps during a race.

So, in summary:

  1. Thirst is not a good indicator of dehydration.
  2. Weigh yourself before training, and after: difference is lost water.
  3. Drink regularly; every 20 minutes. Use a timer, and have a sip even if you’re not thirsty.
  4. Drink a mix of fresh water and sports drinks during medium to long events.