The Effects of Dehydration | Sports Performance

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The Effects of Dehydration | Sports Performance

Dehydration can have a strong negative impact on sports performance, but the effects of water loss tend to appear incrementally and they aren’t always accompanied by feelings of dryness and thirst. If you’re searching for ways to improve performance, take a close look at your relationship with water and sports drinks, and try to keep track of how much you’re drinking, both on and off the sports field. Of all the damaging factors that can undermine sports performance, dehydration is one of the simplest and easiest to fix.

Fighting Dehydration: What Water Does for Us

As we move through the day, our hardworking heart circulates blood, which delivers a steady supply of oxygen and nutrients to our cells. The blood stream also supplies our cells, including our brain and nerve cells, with the minerals and chemicals they require to transmit signals across barrier membranes. The barrier between a nerve and a muscle, for example, is a complex channel that requires a steady supply of specific minerals in order to properly transmit the signal by which the brain tells the muscle to move. In a state of dehydration, nerve and muscle impulses are not as fast or as efficient as they are when water is plentiful. Sports performance suffers when nerve impulses slow down.

Adequate fluids also keep the joints lubricated. In a state of active, healthy hydration, the pads of our joints are soft, supple, and pain free. When dehydration takes place, our joints alter in texture and this can lead to discomfort, which can diminish our sports performance.

Healthy hydration also keeps our muscle cells—and all the cells of our body—flushed clean and cleared of broken cell parts, pathogens and waste material like lactic acid buildup. The more water our cells receive, the faster and more efficient the clearing process. When these waste products are removed from cells, they’re delivered to the kidney and disposed of through the bladder. Dehydration makes all cells and organs, including the kidney, work harder to attain optimal function. And since the kidney also helps to regulate our blood pressure and blood volume, all of these vital functions suffer when the kidney suffers.

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How Dehydration Impacts Sports Performance

You may have noticed that during periods of intense sports performance, your body weight fluctuates rapidly. Athletes can shed a surprising amount of body weight through fluid loss during sports performance, especially during episodes of intense sweating. When this happens, fluid leaves the blood stream, which can raise the proportion of minerals left behind. The kidney struggles to regulate this balance, and the heart struggles as well, since lower blood volume means more work is required to move blood around the body.

Even a small two percent drop in body weight can have a serious impact on blood volume, and this can lead to muscle cramps, dizziness, and fatigue. By the time these effects of dehydration are setting in, sports performance has already experienced a measurable decline. Eventually, sports performance fails, and more serious dehydration dangers can arise like heat exhaustion and heat stroke. These heat illnesses may be accompanied by symptoms like headache, nausea, vomiting and worse.

How Athletes Can Regulate Water Intake and Improve Performance

Since every person’s body is different and fluid needs vary widely from one athlete to another, the best way to improve performance is to take control of your own specific fluid intake and carefully monitor your body’s signals. The fastest route to dehydration and poor sports performance happens when athletes 1.) don’t drink enough water before and during exercise, 2.) sweat excessively, 3.) don’t replace water loss after exercise, and 4.) wait until they feel thirsty before they drink.

All of these increase the risk of dehydration and diminished sports performance, so if you’re looking for ways to improve performance, think actively about how much water you’re drinking and when. Don’t wait for your thirst reflex to tell you it’s time to drink.

You can also improve performance by paying attention to your body weight and the color of your urine. The darker your urine color, the more likely you are to be subjecting your body to the effects of dehydration. And any weight you lose between the beginning and end of a workout session has nothing to do with fat; this difference represents water loss. You’ll need to replace those missing fluids in order to keep dehydration from interfering with your sports performance.

Fighting Dehydration: Sports Drinks

Sports drinks can supply sodium, potassium and electrolytes that can replace what we lose during periods of intense sports performance. But most of us don’t begin to lose these minerals and electrolytes until we’ve been exercising at a very high level of intensity for more than 60 continuous minutes. For most athletes, sports drinks won’t improve performance or ward off dehydration any better than water. Proper nutrition and plenty of water before, during, and after exercise will keep our cells supplied with all the nourishment and hydration they need. But if you’ll be running a marathon, working out for more than two hours, exercising in extremely hot or dry weather, or exercising for a long period of time at a high altitude that you aren’t used to, sports drinks may help improve performance and prevent dehydration.

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Is it Possible to Undermine Sports Performance By Drinking Too Much Water?

Rare cases of water toxicity, or hyponatremia, can happen when too much water intake actually raises our blood volume too high and lowers the proportion of sodium in the blood to dangerous levels. But this doesn’t happen very often. More likely, drinking too much water right before sports performance begins can lead to a bloated, sloshing, or cramping feeling in the stomach. But this represents no serious danger and usually passes away after a few minutes.

When it comes to improving sports performance and avoiding the effects of dehydration, just keep in mind that you can almost never drink too much water during and after a period of intense activity. But proper water intake requires attention, since the body won’t always present obvious signals like thirst or pain. By the time these feelings set in, we’re probably already experiencing less-than-optimal sports performance.