Here’s how hydration impacts your performance and 5 expert tips to hydrate better.
We hear it from trainers, medical professionals, wellness gurus, and our moms: Drink water. Stay hydrated. We know water is good for us. Research shows adequate hydration can even improve your skin. So, we diligently fill our 64-ounce water bottles to the brim and figure we’re covered, right? Not quite. What you need to stay hydrated varies person-to-person and can depend on a variety of factors. Here’s what you need to know.
What impact does hydration have on your performance?
The importance of water to the human body cannot be overstated as all chemical reactions and processes occur within the body’s fluids, explains Stephanie Hnatiuk, a registered dietitian who specializes in performance nutrition. “Water makes up the majority of our blood volume, which transports nutrients, oxygen, and chemical messengers around our body from one organ to another,” she says. “Water is part of the digestive juices our gastrointestinal (GI) tract produces, and it’s lost via sweat to help cool us off.” It’s impossible to point to one bodily function that doesn’t, in some way, rely upon the presence of water. That’s why dehydration can be so dangerous.
“One of the main things that happens when we become dehydrated is the blood, which consists of red blood cells and a liquidy substance called plasma, becomes much thicker,” says Todd Buckingham, Ph.D., lead exercise physiologist at Mary Free Bed Sports Rehabilitation Performance Lab in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The heart must work harder to pump more viscous blood throughout the body, resulting in an elevated heart rate and high blood pressure.
Meanwhile, cells receive less oxygen, and the body undergoes a desperate (and very uncomfortable) attempt to restore balance. If you’ve ever experienced dehydration, you’re familiar with the miserable side effects including headache, dry mouth, dizziness, and irritability.
The discomfort is only amplified during exercise. The easiest workouts can feel challenging. Your heart is beating faster, and you’re producing less sweat, which causes your body temperature to rise. Plus, your chances for sports-related injuries increase, says John-Paul H. Rue, M.D., orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, Maryland.
“I have definitely seen a direct relationship between dehydration and injuries,” Rue says. “Particularly during the hot and humid summer months, if you are dehydrated, there is a higher risk of muscle cramping and injuries like muscle strains, as well as the more serious condition of heat exhaustion.”
Monitoring Your Hydration
The best indicator of your hydration level isn’t particularly glamorous, but it’s accessible and easy to understand. “Use your urine color as a guide,” says Hnatiuk. “You want your urine color to be very light yellow. It doesn’t need to be totally clear, but the darker the color, the more dehydrated you likely are,” she says.
You can also hop on a scale before and after exercising to understand how much water you typically lose during a workout and, therefore, need to replace. Just be sure to weigh yourself naked and towel off any excess moisture. “The amount of weight you lose in kilograms is your sweat rate,” says Buckingham. One kilogram is the equivalent of one liter, so if your weight drops by 2.2 pounds (1 kilogram) during an hour-long workout, you should aim to drink a liter of fluid after every 60-minute sweat session.
Tips for Staying Hydrated
It’s one thing to understand hydration, but it’s quite another to achieve it on a daily basis. If you’re struggling to properly manage and monitor your fluid intake, here are a few expert-backed strategies that can help.
While the old eight-glasses-of-water-a-day rule isn’t a bad place to start, your hydration plan should be unique to your body, level of activity, and the climate in which you live. “Someone who exercises for three hours a day will need more hydration than someone who only exercises for 30 minutes a day,” Buckingham says. “Likewise, someone who is 6’5” and 250 pounds will need more fluid than someone who is 5’2” and 110 pounds.” And, regardless of your body composition, you’ll need to hydrate more when it’s 90 degrees and humid than on a crisp, 65-degree day. “Monitor your urine color regularly and increase your fluid intake if you notice your urine color is a dark yellow,” Hnatiuk advises.
There’s no rule stating you need to stick to plain water. “Adding a little flavor can increase your thirst response, helping you stay motivated to drink more,” Hnatiuk says. Try garnishing your glass with fresh lemon, cucumber slices, mint, or berries, or opt for flavored sugar-free seltzer. Other drinks, like juice, tea, coffee, or a hydrating smoothie, count, too—just be mindful of the sugar and caffeine content.
Try making hydration a habit by attaching it to parts of your daily routine. Hnatiuk refers to this strategy as “habit stacking.” For example, drink a glass of water after you brush your teeth in the morning. Then, have another glass with each meal and snack. Bring a full bottle of water with you when you run errands or walk the dog and finish it before you’re done. Drink before and after a workout, and have a glass of water or cup of herbal tea before bed. Following this type of hydration schedule will help you stay consistently hydrated throughout the day.
“You can also get fluid from the food that you eat,” Buckingham says. “Fruits and vegetables like berries, oranges, cucumbers, tomatoes, and watermelon, to name a few, are all loaded with fluid that will help hydrate you.” Plus, you’ll benefit from the fiber and nutrients that these foods provide.
You don’t need to chug an electrolyte drink for every 30-minute workout session. But if you’re exercising for longer than 90 minutes at a time or in a very hot and humid climate, consider incorporating a post-workout sports drink into your hydration plan. The sodium in these drinks helps pull water into the bloodstream to replace the water lost through sweat. For shorter workouts and everyday activity, the salt in your regular diet is adequate.