How Hydration Affects Athletic Performance

Approximately 60% of body weight is water. Part of that water content may be lost throughout the day as we perspire and go through other bodily functions. That’s why we need to hydrate throughout the day. For athletes especially, hydration is one of the most important nutritional concerns, because during training and competition, if water is not replaced at regular intervals, it can lead to dehydration.

A dehydrated athlete has a decreased volume of blood circulating through the body. This impacts the body in several risky ways. When the volume of circulating blood is less than optimal, the amount of blood that is pumped with each heartbeat also decreases. The muscles that are being exercised then do not receive sufficient oxygen and fatigue sets in. In addition, what should be flushing out of the body during exercise will not be as efficiently handled, as the body tries to compensate for the lack of hydration.

Research has shown that losing as little as 2% of total body weight can negatively affect athletic performance. For example, if a 150-pound athlete loses three pounds due to dehydration during a workout or competition, their ability to perform at peak performance is reduced. Proper fluid replenishment is the key to preventing dehydration and reducing the risk of heat injury in athletes engaged in training and competition.1

Water is involved in the majority of chemical reactions involved in athletic performance. It is important that athletes are hydrated before, during and after physical activity to achieve their best physical performance. Research from the University of Connecticut tested athletes’ muscle growth during resistance training over a period of three different states: Euhydrated (being in a state of water balance), moderately dehydrated (2.5% of body weight) and critically dehydrated (5% of body weight). Researchers drew the athletes’ blood and examined certain molecules directly correlated to muscle growth. The athletes in a dehydrated state had an increased level of the stress hormone known as cortisol, which reduces the level of testosterone, the primary hormone required for muscle growth. Additionally, increased cortisol concentration reduces the amount of testosterone released as a response to resistance-specific weight training.2

Often athletes do not realize they are losing too much water, because they rely on thirst to tell them they need to rehydrate. Many times, by the time thirst kicks in, the athlete is already in a mild state of dehydration. Even when athletes drink throughout their workouts, they may not be hydrating enough. The safest way to maintain hydration is to drink plenty of fluids, before, during and after a workout or competition. Some guidelines are:

•          Weigh in before and after training, especially during hot weather.3

•          Drink up to .6 liters (20 fl oz) about 4 hours prior to intense workouts.4

•          For every pound (about half kilogram) lost, drink three quarters of a liter (24 fl oz).5

•          Aim for “lemonade” color urine. Anything darker is a sign of dehydration.

•          Replenish fluids even if you don’t feel actual thirst.

Keep in mind that it is impossible to recommend a universal replacement strategy for all physically active individuals — everybody’s sweat rate, sweat sodium losses, ability to adapt to heat, training status and daily fluid consumption varies. Nonetheless, routine measurements of body weight pre- and post-exercise can be useful for estimating fluid replacement needs.6

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