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Understanding the “Drink Before You’re Thirsty” Rule

If you’ve been involved in endurance sports for more than a day, you’ve probably heard the old “drink before you’re thirsty” rule. This saying has been around longer than I can remember, and it’s still common.

The other saying that goes along with this one is, “if you get thirsty, you’re already dehydrated.”

While proper hydration is important, these sayings should be taken as loose guidelines and not strict rules. A better guideline would be “don’t forget to stay properly hydrated,” but that’s easier to forget, and is probably the reason someone came up with the scarier rules that imply if you don’t drink like crazy, you’ll die.

There’s just something about the threat of death that keeps the idea fresh in your mind!

Unfortunately, some people take these ideas too far. They think that “drink before you’re thirsty” means “gulp down lots of water at every opportunity.”

Don’t do it! You do need to keep drinking to get enough water, but you can actually go overboard and consume too much water. Drinking too much water could lead to hyponatremia, a condition potentially more dangerous than dehydration! (Hyponatremia is a condition where there’s too much water in the body, which dilutes the sodium content, and can cause such things as swelling of the brain.)

Want an example? Take the 2004 Boston Marathon. After a cool spring where temps were generally around 45 degrees, race day shot up to 85 degrees or warmer. It was ridiculously hot and sunny, and runners were downing every glass of water they could get.

When I saw runners in the medical tents, I figured many of them were suffering from dehydration, considering the unseasonably hot weather. But then I saw the news days later, and it turned out that many runners were suffering from hyponatremia. Apparently the warm weather reminded people to “drink, drink, drink” a little too much water.

Since you probably want to avoid both dehydration and hyponatremia, here are a few tips:

1. Use Sports Drinks.

If you’ll be exercising for a long period of time and/or out in extremely hot weather, you should consider using a sports drink rather than plain water. Sports drinks contain electrolytes such as sodium, which should help keep your body in balance. (Though it’s not a guarantee.)

2. Keep Drinking.

You need to drink, but you only need a few sips at a time, rather than numerous big gulps. I typically have a few sips from my water bottle every 10-15 minutes, depending on the weather. That allows me to stay on a consistent schedule, and means I consume about 16-20oz of water or sports drink per hour.

3. Hydrate Properly.

Read more about Proper Hydration for Endurance Sports, and put all those tips into practice.

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2 Comments
  1. I abide by the “drink before you are thirsty rule” but I don’t drink uncomfortable amounts of water. Usually works for me.

    • @Tim

      I tend to follow the “eat before you’re hungry” rule, but not the “drink before you’re thirty” rule, since I get VERY thirsty, VERY quickly, VERY often during intense workouts and races! There’s simply no chance for me to drink before I get thirsty. 🙂

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coach levi
Hi, I'm Coach Levi. I'm a USA Cycling Certified Level 3 Coach as well as Level 1 Certified with Precision Nutrition. Want to feel better, ride faster, and look great? Let's work together!

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