Proper Hydration for the Student Athlete

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By Sam Barr, BS, ACSM

As more athletes concern themselves with eating properly to improve their performance, the liquid portion of the diet may be getting overlooked. With so much focus on the quality of food intake, it’s easy to disregard beverage choices and the implications those choices may have on your athletic potential.

With hundreds of drink products available, it’s easy to get confused when trying to make healthy choices. However, by informing yourself on what these drinks contain and their effects on the body, you’ll be better prepared to make the right choices. Help yourself and support a well-rounded diet with fluids that will enable you to perform your very best, on and off the field.

Hydration for the Athlete

You’ve probably heard countless times that staying hydrated is important, but have you ever considered, why? The human body is over 60% water, and that water is constantly being used to carry out body processes.

Muscle tissue alone is 75% water, so keeping them functioning correctly is significantly dependent on hydration levels. Staying properly hydrated allows the body to continue these processes and function at maximum capacity.

Staying hydrated is an ongoing process. By the time you feel thirsty, your body is already dehydrated, and performance levels will begin to drop. Drinking constantly throughout the day, even though you may not feel thirsty, ensures optimal hydration levels are met.

You should be urinating at least 3-4 times daily, if not, you may be coming up short on fluid intakes, so drink up!

Individuals participating in low to moderate levels of physical activity are encouraged to consume 9-12 cups of fluid daily, but athletes engaging in vigorous or prolonged activity may need to gulp down several times that amount!

Fluid needs vary according to individual body size, sweat rates, temperature, exercise duration and intensity, which all affect rates of fluid loss. Hydration levels can be monitored by examining urine color (dark urine is a sign of dehydration), and by noting pre and post exercise weight comparisons.

Weight lost after a single workout is mostly water weight, and replacing those fluids is crucial to restoring the bodies’ fluid balance. For every 1 pound lost during a single workout, 16-24 oz, (2-3 cups) of fluids should be consumed to compensate fluid losses.

Complementing proper food choices with mindful beverage intakes preps the body to reach its full potential when the first whistle blows! Let’s analyze 3 of the most common beverage categories encountered by athletes:

Water is best

As a simple rule of thumb, the shorter the ingredients list, the healthier the beverage. For staying hydrated, your best bet will always be water. In certain circumstances, water alone may not meet your body’s needs, but we’ll discuss that topic shortly. Drinking water constantly throughout the day improves energy levels, revs up metabolism, lubricates joints, regulates body temperature, and removes wastes from the body, to name only a few of its benefits. It provides all the hydration you need, and with zero calories and no added ingredients, it fills you up without slowing you down.

Other fluids can serve as healthy additions to your beverage intake, and provide water along with other beneficial nutrients. Skim or low-fat milk contributes health promoting factors like calcium and Vitamin D for healthy bones, protein for muscle repair and growth, along with a host of other nutrients beneficial to athletes. 100% fruit juices can add vitamins and minerals, but the high levels of sugars in these beverages should be considered.

You’re better off eating the fruit, drinking water, and bypassing all the added ingredients, but moderate intakes are okay. These beverages can serve as healthy source of fluids, but should not exclusively replace water. Neither milk nor fruit juice is recommended before physical activity, as the fat or sugars may cause gastrointestinal discomfort.

Individual water needs vary significantly, but the simplest recommendations call for a minimum 64 oz. (8 cups) a day.

This amount should be exceeded many times over by student athletes, who should consume between 12-15 cups per day.

Before practice or competitions, 15-30 minutes prior, you may benefit from drinking an extra 1-2 cups. During exercise, a mixture of water and sports drinks may be warranted depending on intensity, and ½-1 cup of fluids should be consumed roughly every 15 minutes.

After exercising, replacing fluid losses becomes vitally important, and a combination of water and sports drinks proves most effective at restoring fluid balance.

Carry a water bottle with you and sip regularly throughout the day to have your body fueled and ready to go at game time!

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Sports drinks add a boost

For those participating in competition lasting longer than 1 hour or intense activities prompting excessive sweating, water alone may not cut it. Sports drinks contain hydrating water along with electrolytes, sodium and potassium, which are necessary for neural regulation and muscular action.

These minerals are lost in the sweat, and if not replaced will cause fatigue and depleted energy stores. Sports drinks also contain appropriate amounts of simple carbohydrates (sugar), which boost waning blood sugar levels and provide quick energy to help sustain high levels of exertion. As stored energy gets used, these easily digestible fuel sources effectively contribute fuel to maintain high levels of exertion.

The ingredients found in sports beverages have been proven to restore fluid balances and keep you in the game.

Although useful during athletic events, sports beverages are not intended to be casual beverages. The benefits they provide to athletes during prolonged, intense bouts of physical activity are warranted and proven effective, but to individuals not pushing their bodies to the limits, the sugars, sodium, and calories in these same sports drinks will not be quickly used by the body and can eventually be stored as fat.

A 20 oz. bottle of Gatorade contains 34 grams of sugar, which can be immediately used to energize the muscles during an hour of soccer practice.

However, those same 34 grams of sugar will not be burned if consumed during a sedentary hour of gaming, and is equivalent to snacking on an entire pack of Starburst candies!

Keeping sports drinks on the sidelines and minimizing intakes during downtimes will help promote fluid balance and minimize excessive sugar and calorie intake.

Energy drinks are a poor choice

As the popularity of energy drinks increases, athletes may be swayed to guzzle one down in hopes of obtaining quick, easy energy boosts to power through a workout or perform with extra intensity during competition. In reality, these sugar-laden concoctions are a poor choice for athletes.

Energy drinks like Red Bull and Monster, whose advertisements include well-known athletes, may actually severely hinder athletic performance.

They contain copious amounts of sugar (27 grams in one 8 oz. can of Red Bull), high doses of caffeine (up to 200 milligrams or more in some brands- as much as 2-3 cups of coffee!), additional caffeine-like stimulation from unregulated herbal ingredients like guarana, and no nutritional value.

The energy source, caffeine, is a stimulant that facilitates an increased heart rate prompting temporary alertness. Energy drinks that claim to use no caffeine use alternative stimulants like guarana (5 hour energy) which is actually a natural source of caffeine. In fact, its seeds contain twice the concentration of caffeine as coffee beans.

Caffeine has mild diuretic effects, meaning it dehydrates the body and constricts blood vessels, slowing down blood flow to the working muscles.

While the immediate jolt of energy these beverages provide may seem appealing, the unnatural effects they have on the body may hinder performance.

The “crash” associated with energy drinks is the body’s response to the subsiding blood sugar after a brief rush.

The result is plummeting energy levels, headaches, and irritability, and with all the sugar and additives, these beverages can dehydrate and cause upset stomachs- not what you want heading into a big game.

As athletic competition becomes more intense every year, the pressure to maximize physical potential increases. Many athletes are taking steps to improve their dietary intakes, but may be overlooking a crucial element.

The foods and liquids you consume (or don’t consume) throughout the day significantly affect your body and could be the difference between winning and losing.

Stay informed, make healthy choices, and leave the competition in the dust. Drink well and play hard!