Sports Dehydration: Prevention and Treatment
Most of us are well aware that water is essential to life, and that hydration is an important aspect of good health and nutrition. Both athletes and non-athletes also tend to recognize a connection between intense activity and water loss, and we’ve almost all experienced the thirst and dehydration response that takes place when we engage in intense exercise in the heat of the summer.
But sports dehydration isn’t just about feeling thirsty. In fact, some of the most serious consequences of sports dehydration happen with no specific parallel to the thirst reflex. Humans have a very weak thirst response, which means our actual desire to drink water doesn’t always directly reflect our need for hydration. Sometimes when the body is most desperately in need of fluids, we don’t actually feel thirsty at all. So when it comes to maximizing sports performance and preventing the health problems associated with sports dehydration, we can’t count on our thirst reflex to protect us.
And even when we feel thirsty, we don’t always instinctively reach for the fluids that bring the greatest benefit. Athletes often wonder if pure water is really enough to support performance, or if sports drinks really provide the magical benefits stated on their labels. The answers usually depend on several factors, including any existing signs of sports dehydration, and the length and intensity of a given period of exercise.
Mild Sports Dehydration: Health Effects
When mild sports dehydration sets in, the signs and symptoms may include:
1. A dry or sticky mouth
2. Dark and decreased urine
3. Tiredness and fatigue
4. Moodiness or irritability
5. Headache, dizziness or lightheadedness
Serious Sports Dehydration
More serious cases of sports dehydration may require immediate attention, including medical help. Signs of severe dehydration can include:
1. Intense thirst
2. A lack of sweating, or sweating that slows down or stops altogether
3. Dry skin that can be pinched or tented into a fold that doesn’t bounce back
4. Dark colored, infrequent urination
5. An elevated or shallow heartbeat
6. Rapid breathing
7. Sunken eyes
8. Joint pain
10. In the most severe cases, a dehydrated person can lose consciousness.
For the most part, the best indicator of dehydration is NOT thirst. More accurate signs include urine frequency and color, mood, and heart rate.
Sports Dehydration: Prevention
To protect health and optimize athletic performance, it’s best to catch the signs of sports dehydration early. Both athletes and non-athletes should always drink at least eight six-ounce glasses of water per day, whether they’re exercising or not. And this water intake should not be dependent on thirst—It should just be a regular part of a healthy daily routine. Juice, milk and other healthy drinks can be substituted for water, but it’s wise to keep in mind that these drinks can contain a surprising number of calories, and the calories in juice come mostly from fructose, a simple sugar devoid of nutrients. At the end of the day, water is the best choice for daily hydration; it’s calorie-free, chemical-free, free of sugar and carbohydrates, and it provides everything the body needs to maintain blood circulation and hydrate the skin, brain, joints and organ systems.
Water versus Sports Drinks
During periods of exercise and activity, athletes often wonder how to choose between pure water and sports drinks like Gatorade. Is water enough to adequately prevent sports dehydration, or do athletes really need the extra benefits described on the labels of sports-specific drinks?
The answer depends on the length and intensity of the exercise in question, and can usually be reduced to a simple two-hour rule: After two hours of intense, demanding activity that pushes the heart above 40 percent of its maximum rate, it’s okay to switch from water to sports drinks. It’s at this point that the body begins shifting its metabolic processes and drawing energy from broken-down body fat tissue and glycogen stored in the liver. As glycogen and carbohydrates are used up, they can be replaced by the carbohydrates in sports drinks. Until that point (during the first two hours of exercise), the body doesn’t need additional carbohydrates and water will suffice to maintain blood circulation and keep tissues hydrated. For the first two hours of any activity, sports drinks and juices don’t provide any measurable benefit to hydration or performance that can’t be provided by water.
Sports Dehydration: Drinking Too Much
Athletes often wonder if it’s possible to drink too much. And if so, what are some of the problems caused by overhydration? There is, in fact, a rare condition called water toxicity, in which the blood contains so much water that the relative concentration of electrolytes drops and an athlete can suffer severe health consequences, including death. But this almost never happens, and fear of this condition should never cause an athlete to avoid drinking before or during intense activity. In the meantime, the more practical problems caused by drinking too much come from an uncomfortable sloshing in the stomach, cramping sensations, and the need to urinate frequently. These issues may prevent optimal performance on the sports field, but they don’t usually lead to long term problems or serious health concerns.
Sports Dehydration in Children
Adults don’t have a very accurate thirst mechanism, and the thirst reflex in children is even more unreliable. So coaches and youth sports directors need to work hard to keep an eye on the subtle symptoms of dehydration in young players. Children and teens should be encouraged to make a regular habit of drinking water regardless of thirst, and water should always be made available to athletes who are training and exercising in the heat of the summer, especially during periods that extend longer than two hours. When moodiness, irritability, headaches or dizziness set in, adults should notice and identify sports dehydration as the potential source of the problem. Keeping young athletes hydrated can improve morale and performance and can lead to increased success, faster skill acquisition, and a better experience for everyone.