The Triathlete’s Guide to Off-Course Hydration
Staying hydrated during the 9 to 5 is just as important as in races. Here’s how to get it right.
by Pip Taylor
Most triathletes understand the importance of staying hydrated during key workouts and races, and spend a lot of energy, time, and money on getting it right. But what about hydration on a day-to-day basis? How important is it to stay hydrated on the days in between races, where we log most of our physical activity?
Very important, actually.
Proper daily hydration will help you maximize your workouts, which as we know, directly impact race results. But it’s not just important for athletic performance. Maintaining the water/electrolyte balance is vital for every system in our bodies—digestion and absorption of nutrients, healthy skin, temperature regulation, optimal brain power, nerve and muscle function, and efficient fat burning. All of these processes are essential for endurance athletes.
Balance is key
Successful hydration is more than just drinking water. It’s about achieving an adequate balance of both fluids and electrolytes—minerals like sodium, potassium, magnesium, chloride, and calcium that are dissolved in cellular fluids and essential to our health. Electrolytes are obtained through the food we eat and the supplements we take, but lost through our sweat and urine.
8 glasses and counting?
The “eight glasses a day” advice is often touted by popular health magazines as the magic number. However, as prevalent as the idea is, there is really no basis to this number. How much you need to drink varies greatly between individuals, based on size and activity levels, among other factors. Sweat rates are also highly individual and will change with your exercise intensity, the weather conditions and how much liquid you’ve consumed prior to exercise. It’s best to pay close attention to your thirst and drink accordingly, rather than sticking to a rigid hydration plan. Listen to early thirst signals and keep fluids readily accessible. Signs of dehydration include fatigue, nausea, dry lips and throat but also extend to headaches and reduced ability to concentrate at work or complete training workouts.
And just because you’re not training doesn’t mean you’re not losing fluids. First, take into consideration what you do for work. Does it require physical work? Are you in an air-conditioned office? Do you live and work somewhere very hot, or at altitude? All of these factors impact how much you need to be drinking outside of your workouts, and all of these scenarios require an increase in fluid requirements. You can’t expect to perform an afternoon workout optimally if you have neglected to pay attention to your hydration levels throughout the day. Playing catch up during the workout itself is nearly impossible.
What to drink
It’s important to hydrate with fluids that contain electrolytes to balance what’s lost through sweat, especially in the heat. The extra salt will also encourage you to keep hydrating. You can use low-carbohydrate (and low-calorie) electrolyte replacement drinks that encourage drinking and replace salts and minerals. The low sugar content means that not only is uptake of fluids and electrolytes from the stomach enhanced (and risk of gastro intestinal distress reduced), but you are not loading up on sugars when they are not needed.
Related Article: The Triathlete’s Guide to Sugar Types
How to monitor your hydration
Some very basic signs to look for in regards to monitoring your hydration levels are frequency, color, and volume of urination. You don’t need to keep a chart, but here are a few simple things to watch for.
Frequency: If you notice that you haven’t visited the washroom all day, then most likely you haven’t drunk enough.
Color: If your urine is clear like water or a very dark yellow, then hydrate up! Urine should remain within the spectrum of light-colored yellow to straw-colored. If it’s too clear, you might be drinking excessively or drinking too much water relative to electrolytes. Urine that is too dark is a sign that you’ve not been drinking enough and are likely dehydrated. Note: urine color can also be influenced by certain foods.
Volume: It is also worthwhile keeping a log of weights, both pre- and post-workout to give you a basic idea of your sweat rate. This can act as a guideline to approximate how much you are aiming to drink during and/or immediately after your workout to maintain hydration levels.
Pip Taylor is a nutritionist and pro triathlete.