Hydration for Performance: Hydration Strategies to Prevent Muscle Cramps, Perform Better & Recover Faster

Did you know a tiny loss of 2% of our weight in water will negatively impact athletic performance (source)? It doesn't just stop there, dehydrate yourself enough and it'll starts to affect:

  • mental focus and cognition (source)
  • energy levels
  • mood
  • skin health
  • GI function (leading to constipation)
  • skeletal muscle (leading to cramps)
  • kidney function
  • water balance (wanna retain water and be bloated? Don’t drink enough water.)
  • cardiovascular function

We all know dehydration isn’t good but many of us are walking around chronically dehydrated. It gets even worse when we don't properly hydrate during training. Along with getting enough sleep and eating well, getting enough fluids is one of those #basicAF things you can do to greatly benefit your performance without resorting to spending tons of cash money.

From talking to many of you I've found that there's confusion on how much water you need to drink, when to drink, or what to drink due to all the conflicting fitness/health info out there. In this article, I’ll present some general guidelines for staying hydrated, discuss how to determine your needs for water as an individual, and give you a simple protocol to hydrate for workouts or competitions.

 

Super-general guidelines for water consumption

There are a lot of general guidelines for water consumption and like any general suggestions, they are merely starting points. Water intake and needs are INDIVIDUAL! But we need a good starting point to base our individual needs off of just like with food.

The 8 ounces of water 8 times a day rule is ok but it doesn’t take into account the individual size of a person or their activity. As a general guideline, I’m going to suggest that you drink at least half of your body weight in pounds in ounces throughout the day. That would be the bare minimum if you were just sitting in the AC office all day. If you work out, look to add another 15-20 ounces of every hour of training.  

For me, weighing 180 lbs and working out about 2 hours, I’m going to get anywhere from 120-130 ounces of water per day. If you know you’re not even close to your calculated amount, don’t worry. Figure out where you are and work towards that. But also realize that your water needs as an individual may be more or less than the general recommendations.

 

How much water you need is unique to you

You’re an individual and your needs for water will not be the same as your homie sitting next to you. It will depend on a lot of things like:

  • your exercise duration and intensity
  • your diet and the types of food you eat
  • environment and acclimatization to that environment
  • your age
  • even sexual activity (ayooo)

You may not enjoy going to the bathroom every 5 seconds and gulping down tons of water (even though it’s recommended) may not be something you even desire or even need to do.

As cliche as it sounds, during the day you’ll need to listen and pay attention to what your body is telling you and consider the context of the situation. During just everyday living thirst is still a good indicator of whether you need to drink. If you’re feeling thirsty and it’s been a while since you’ve had fluids, get some in you. If you notice that your mood or focus wanes and you haven’t drank in a while, perhaps you’re getting dehydrated. Drink some water and see if you feel better. Sometimes hunger and thirst feel similar. If you feel hungry, drink some water first. If you’re not hungry after drinking water, you were probably just dehydrated.

You can also look at the color of your urine. It’s not the most definitive indicator given that it can be affected by diet, medication, alcohol and other factors, but it’s still a good tool to use. If your pee looks like 24 karat magic and you haven’t had any water in a while, then you probably need to drink some H2O! Use common sense and context y’all!

 This chart can help you determine if you may need more water. Be aware that a number of factors can change the color of your pee. Use context and consider your situation!  Photo Credit:  Player Scout

This chart can help you determine if you may need more water. Be aware that a number of factors can change the color of your pee. Use context and consider your situation! Photo Credit: Player Scout

 

If you’re training a ton at high intensity and it’s hot outside, you’ll most likely need more water and I wouldn’t wait until you’re super-thirsty to drink. Stick to the 15-20 ounces per hour guidelines and sip periodically during the workout to your satisfaction.

If you really want to get technical about your water needs during training, you can determine it by weighing yourself before and after training to determine how much water weight you lose. Likely, you don’t need to get that deep in the weeds but here’s the calculator if you’re interested.
 

It ain’t just about H2O.

Water is important to stay hydrated but for athletes hydration should encompass electrolyte replenishment as well. When you train for long durations at high intensities, you’re going to lose electrolytes like sodium, potassium, magnesium calcium and chloride. These substances are crucial in maintaining fluid balance and proper muscular contraction. An imbalance in these electrolytes can lead to problems as minor as muscle cramps to life-threatening issues like seizures and coma.

A balanced diet rich in vegetables, fruits and whole, unprocessed foods will provide most of the electrolyte needs for most people.

 You can get plenty of electrolytes just from food, but for you hard-exercising folks, supplementation will be necessary. 

You can get plenty of electrolytes just from food, but for you hard-exercising folks, supplementation will be necessary. 

 

However, if you’re training for hours at a time at high intensity in a sweat box, you will likely need to supplement in order to properly replenish lost electrolytes.

There are tons of hydration supplements and options out there. I recommend:

  • Nuun tablets
  • Skratch Labs powders
  • Pedialyte or Pedialyte powders  

Many (including myself) have recommend coconut water but it turns out, that may not be  all that effective (source). It’s definitely better than nothing but, if you can help it, use a hydration powder or electrolyte supplement like the ones I just mentioned.
 

For intense and/or high volume training add carbs and protein

Getting carbs during and after training can help improve performance and enhance recovery from your workouts.

Some hydration formulas and most sports drinks already contain carbs so be sure to keep an eye out. If they don’t and you’re doing really high intensity or high volume workouts, take your workout hydration to the next level by adding in carbs and protein with your electrolyte replenishing beverage.

The amount of carbs and protein will vary depending on your needs as an individual, but add anywhere from 30-50 grams of carbs in 20 ounces of water. Use a glucose-based carb source like cyclic dextrin or dextrose instead of table sugar or fruit juice in order to promote glycogen replenishment in the muscles rather than just the liver.

In that same carb-electrolyte drink, throw in 15-25 grams of protein from a protein powder supplement. Adding a moderate amount of protein will also aid in the recovery process by preventing breakdown of muscle. The idea is to get 2:1, carb to protein ratio but you can go for 3:1 or 4:1 ratios if your workout is really tough. 

Note: All of these calories in your shake matter, so be sure to take that into account and be mindful of the intake.

Follow your training with a water and protein and carb rich meal and you’re in workout recovery heaven. 

 

So what about sports drinks? Are they a good option?

Sports drinks like Gatorade can work in a pinch but usually contain way more calories and other dyes and colorings so if you’re watching your food intake or don’t want artificial stuff. Sports drinks are also often highly concentrated in terms of carb content. Highly concentrated carb fluids greater than 10% don’t absorb as well in the stomach and can lead to an upset stomach.

My verdict is that it’s best to avoid or rarely use sports drinks. If you do drink one, I recommended diluting it by half with water to avoid an upset stomach.

 

Here’s a simple hydration protocol for workouts and competitions

  1. Take 30 minutes prior to training to sip on and finish about 16 ounces of cool water with electrolytes.

    Chugging water right before training just increases the chances of water still sloshing around in your stomach because you haven’t given it enough time to absorb.
     
  2. For low intensity workouts or short workouts lasting under an hour, you’ll likely be ok with plain water. Drink anywhere from 15-20 ounces of water during training. If it’s hot and you sweat more, you may need more water/electrolytes so just be aware.
     
  3. During high intensity or long duration workouts lasting longer than an hour or training in high temperatures, drink about 15-20 ounces per hour with electrolytes. Add 30-50g carbs along with 15-25g of protein for quick energy and improved post-training recovery.
     
  4. After training, sip another 15-20 ounces of cool water with your post workout meal. If your training was really long and/or you sweat a lot, plain water and food may not be enough. Consider getting more electrolytes post workout (source)

Again, your individual needs for water and electrolyte replenishment may vary. You may need more or less during training or competition depending on the conditions and how your body responds so be sure to try things out and tweak your performance hydration protocol to suit you as an individual.

Cheers and drink up (water of course!)

Alex

References

Popkin, Barry M., Kristen E. D’Anci, and Irwin H. Rosenberg. “Water, Hydration and Health.” Nutrition reviews 68.8 (2010): 439–458. PMC. Web. 26 May 2018.

Riebl, Shaun K, and Brenda M. Davy. “The Hydration Equation: Update on Water Balance and Cognitive Performance.” ACSM’s health & fitness journal17.6 (2013): 21–28. PMC. Web. 26 May 2018.

Julie Mazziota. "The Amount of Water You Actually Need Per Day". Time.com. 25 September 2015.

Shawn Dowlan. "Electrolytes: Understanding Replacement Options". American Council on Exercise

Lawrence E. Armstrong, Evan C. Johnson, Laura J. Kunces, Matthew S. Ganio, Daniel A. Judelson, Brian R. Kupchak, Jakob L. Vingren, Colleen X. Munoz, Robert A. Huggins, Jay R. Hydren, Nicole E. Moyen, and Keith H. Williamson Drinking to Thirst Versus Drinking Ad Libitum During Road CyclingJournal of Athletic Training 2014 49:5, 624-631.

Interested in working with me?

I'm offering a free consult call for those want change their lives with better nutrition. To see how I can help you, click the button below to schedule your free 1-on-1 call.