Sip or gulp? Staying hydrated more important than how you do it

09/03/2013 12:00 AM

08/08/2014 10:18 AM

I got a great question on hydration last week: “I led a hike this morning for VIP trainees on the Billy Goat Trail and there was an interesting discussion about hydrating. When hydrating while hiking or exercising is it better to gulp large amounts of water at one time or sip it over a period of time? Does it really matter? For the record I gulp large amounts of water.”

When it comes to hydration, what really matters is being well hydrated on a regular basis. If you’re not adequately hydrated on a daily basis, having the most optimal hydration strategy for a hike or workout doesn’t matter. Hydration is a lot more important that most people think and it’s also a lot simpler.

Being adequately hydrated matters for everyone and for every single type of fitness goal: weight loss or weight gain, athletic performance, improving joint health, not vomiting …

Here’s why in reverse order:

Being well hydrated prevents vomiting because it helps your body cool itself. It only takes your body heating up by 2 degrees before you feel like (or can’t help) throwing up and throw in the towel on what would’ve otherwise been a totally appropriate workout.

Your joints are lubricated by synovial fluid, which is water based. If you’re dehydrated, you might end up with less lube in your joints. While this is definitely not the cause of all joint pain, dehydration certainly doesn’t help.

For athletic performance, being down just 2 percent of your body weight can cut your performance by 20 percent or more, according to research on college athletes. Additionally, being a little dehydrated can push you over the edge toward an awful muscle cramp.

For weight gain or weight loss your body needs to be able to exercise with some intensity, and if you’re dried up inside you won’t be able to reach the intensity levels necessary to stimulate change in your body. Being dehydrated will slow down your recovery and limit your results because all changes happen between workouts, not during. Lastly, when it comes to weight loss, everyone who “hates water” that I’ve worked with in the past 15 years gets to a point where progress stops … until they finally take hydration seriously.

How to get and stay hydrated

In my college nutrition courses I studied all sorts of entirely impractical strategies for hydration. One of these was for outdoor physical activity: 90 minutes before exercise have 16 ounces of water, then during exercise have 8 ounces every 15 minutes. Finally, note the difference in your body weight over the course of your activity (using the scale you keep in your backpack, I guess) and drink 20 ounces of water per pound of body weight lost. While I know this has value for professional athletes, this is just too much of a pain to be worth it for everyone else.

These are the simple keys to practical hydration:

• Start with about half your body weight in ounces. (So, if you weigh 150 pounds, try about 80 ounces of water – most water bottles are about 20 ounces, so finish four of them today.)
• Check your urine: You should be able to read through it. If it is dark, you need more water.
• You should sweat during exercise: If you exercise with some actual intensity and you don’t sweat, I’d guess you’re pretty dehydrated and could get so much more out of your body (and feel better in the process) if you followed the advice above.
• You should not gain weight over the course of exercise: If you are one of the few people who thinks they might drink too much water (it does happen), go through the trouble of weighing yourself before and after exercise. If you gain a pound or more during exercise, that is probably too much. Back off because there is too much of a good thing.

The bottom line is that you can either sip water every five minutes or gulp your water once an hour during your workout or hike. If it’s the same amount of water, you’ll get about the same result, provided you are hydrated on a day-to-day basis.

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