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Proper Hydration Techniques for Endurance Sports

The most important aspect to sports nutrition would have to be proper hydration. Poor food choices can get you in trouble, but inadequate hydration can get you killed!

Whether it’s dehydration (too little water) or hyponatremia (too much water,) you’re in trouble! Fortunately, proper hydration really isn’t that complicated. The tips I have for you here should cover everything you need to know to stay safe.

What You Should Drink

The actual beverage you choose will be based on exercise type, exercise duration, weather, and personal preference.

For low intensity exercise (perhaps hiking or a casual bike ride,) stick with plain water. For higher intensity training that is a short duration (sprinting workouts under 60 minutes,) I would still stick with water.

If you will be maintaining a fairly high intensity for a longer duration (a fifty mile bike ride with lots of climbing,) you probably want to switch to a sports drink. That will help replenish the calories you are burning and provide necessary electrolytes.

At the very least, I’d use Nuun to get electrolytes. Nuun is a great choice if you hate sports drinks.

If you’re going to conquer something of very long duration like a 24 hour mountain bike race, I’d move up to a sports drink that contains carbohydrates and protein (which also means more calories to keep you energized.) The two main options here are Accelerade and Hammer Perpetuem.

Don’t forget the weather. The hotter it is, the more likely I would be to use a sports drink rather than plain water for any activity over an hour in length. Exercising in extreme heat can dehydrate you rather fast!

Sports drinks also come in handy in cold weather. Sports drinks have a lower freezing point than plain water, so they’ll stay liquid slightly longer when riding in frigid temps!

And of course, personal preference. You might love sports drinks and use them all the time. That’s fine (within reason.) Or maybe you hate sports drinks, even light ones like Nuun. Then you could stick with plain water, but I’d recommend taking some Endurolytes or something to make sure you don’t run low on sodium.

How Much and How Often You Should Drink

During endurance exercise, I like to take a few sips of water every 15 minutes. That works out to roughly 16oz of fluid per hour.

In most situations, 16oz per hour will keep you hydrated without forcing you stop to pee all the time. But of course, that varies with the weather. On cool days, a 24oz water bottle might last me for two hours. But on a hot day, I might finish 24oz within an hour!

That guideline should give you a good starting point. However, everyone is different, so you might need to adjust your fluid intake a few times to see what works best.

“Drink Before You’re Thirsty”

The old adage was always to eat before you’re hungry and drink before you’re thirsty.

There could be a variety of reasons why this saying came about. Perhaps dehydration was becoming too common.

Unfortunately, today we all know the dangers of going too far in the other direction and suffering from exercise-associated hyponatremia (essentially becoming too hydrated).

“Drink to Thirst”

The latest guideline I’ve heard is to “drink to thirst.” Or, drink whenever you’re thirsty.

Neither is very specific. And even if you do drink before you’re thirsty, that doesn’t mean you’ll drink more than someone who drinks directly according to their feelings of thirst.

The truth is, it’s probably an individual thing. I get thirsty very frequently, so if I listen to my body, I’ll drink A LOT of fluid. Other athletes rarely feel like drinking, so sometimes they may need to drink before they’re thirsty.

That’s why I preach the value of getting to know your body (and your sweat rate.)

Pre-Hydrating

While staying hydrated consistently works great, it’s possible to do just fine with a limited fluid intake during exercise. That’s where “pre-hydrating” comes in. In a nutshell, pre-hydrating means you drink quite a bit of water before exercise to make sure you are completely hydrated.

Here’s an example: Back before I had a Fuel Belt to carry nourishment with me, I’d go jogging for 1-2 hours without water. Sometimes I’d find a public water fountain, but other times I’d drink nothing whatsoever.

I got thirsty, but by being fully hydrated when I started, and drinking plenty afterward, I had absolutely no problem with staying hydrated.

Obviously this strategy would be a bad idea for longer durations in hot weather, but it works well for shorter durations, and it can be used in addition to normal hydration strategies.

What To Look Out For

I don’t feel that getting thirsty is a sign for concern, but there are other things to worry about.

If you start getting a woozy feeling, that’s not good.

If your urine is dark yellow or brown, that’s not good. If you haven’t peed in twelve hours, that’s probably not good either!

Ceasing to sweat is also a cause for concern.

Also, too many pee breaks is a bad sign because you’re probably drinking too much and wasting time with the pit stops!

Parting Thoughts

I suggest following these tips rather than relying on old, vague sayings such as “drink before you’re thirsty.” I have gotten thirsty plenty of times while relying on my personal guidelines, but I have never been in danger of serious dehydration.

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1 Comment
  1. Great tips, thanks! I never thought so many factors could be analyzed for the hydration equation!

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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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Coach Levi is my favorite child and favorite cycling coach. I'd choose him over Christoper McCarmikael even. Did I mention that Levi can coach you to a healthier lifestyle where you look and feel your best?
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