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Dehydration vs. Thirst – Drink Before You Feel Thirsty

“Thirst is not a good indicator of your level of hydration.” – Coach Shane

My college coach has more sayings than I can count. Many of them make us laugh, but all of them have wisdom behind them. I would have to say that his most-used saying is, “Thirst is not a good indicator of your level of hydration“. I don’t think I could count the number of times I’ve heard my coach say it. He repeats it over and over again, but to tell you the truth, we always need to hear it! The wisdom behind the saying lies in the fact that by the time you are feeling thirsty, you are already past the point of being adequately hydrated. If you feel thirsty, it’s too late!

Hydration is a major necessity when it comes to fitness and athletic performance. Dehydration can cause you to feel sluggish, tired and can contribute to major health problems. Severe dehydration can be a serious life threatening condition. Initial indications of dehydration include dry eyes, headache, dizziness and fatigue.

If you wait until you are thirsty, your body is already dehydrated. It takes about TWO HOURS for anything you drink to have an effect on your body’s hydration level. By the time you feel thirsty, you are two hours behind! Drinking something even the second you realize you are thirsty means that you will still be dehydrated for at least two more hours. You should be drinking enough liquids throughout the day so that you rarely (or never) feel thirsty.

If you don’t hydrate more than two hours in advance of your workout, race, game or other event, you will be dehydrated during your event regardless of how much you drink within the two hours prior. You should drink plenty of water all day and then taper off your fluid intake during those last two hours. The water you drink right before your event will not have enough time to hydrate your body, and will only make you have to run to the restroom more than you would otherwise (and we all know we already do enough of that out of nervousness before our event!)

If your event is a long event (we’re talking hours long), it is best to follow the guidelines above to be adequately hydrated prior to the event. Once the event starts, it is recommended that, at that point, you drink just when you are thirsty, or that you also hydrate with a sports drink. As you sweat, you lose more than just water. During long periods of strenuous exercise such as marathons, long triathalons, tennis matches or other long athletic events, you lose significant amounts of sodium and other electrolytes in addition to significant amounts water. During these long events, drinking too much during can result in hyponatremia, a condition where blood sodium levels drop too much. If water levels are over-replenished, the body’s natural balance of water, sodium and other electrolytes can be disrupted. The body, in essence, becomes over-hydrated. Instead of drinking constantly during long periods of exercise, drink when you are thirsty, or be sure to intake enough sodium and electrolytes as you hydrate. Sports drinks are a great option to help avoid hyponatremia. Many of them contain the right proportions of sodium, other electrolytes and minerals that are essential when it comes to replenishing your body’s fluid levels.

Good hydration has additional benefits. Adequate hydration improves your skin, helps with digestion and helps to flush out toxins and other impurities in your body.

Take it from me. I’ve had more than one race where I didn’t take my coach’s advice. After suffering through an entire race feeling absolutely sluggish and terrible, and then dealing with the frustration of knowing I had a bad race, I had to learn the hard way! It wasn’t fun. For anyone putting a ton of work into something, it’s simply not worth it to let dehydration have a negative affect on your performance.

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