Proper Hydration for the Endurance Athlete

This article is an excerpt from Sports Nutrition for Endurance Athletes by Monique Ryan MS, RD, LDN, CSSD. In her comprehensive guide to sports nutrition, Ryan uses her 30 years of experience coaching professional and age-group athletes to simplify this complex subject into proven, real world guidelines. Sports Nutrition for Endurance Athletes shows runners, cyclists, and triathletes how to address specific nutritional needs for short- and long-course racing and busts dozens of myths and misconceptions along the way.

It is essential to stay on top of your fluid needs by drinking a minimum of 11 to 16 cups (2.7–3.8 L) of fluid daily for basic hydration requirements when not training. To meet this requirement, try to drink on a schedule of 8 ounces (240 ml) every hour on average. Water should make up about half of your daily fluid intake, but you can also receive hydration benefits from other fluids. Juice, dairy milk, soy milk, soup, and various sports nutrition supplements can be good choices. Some foods—especially fruits and vegetables—contain a high percentage of water and can also contribute fluid to your daily diet. Endurance athletes with very high energy requirements can consume high-calorie drinks such as juices and smoothies to assist them in meeting their fluid, carbohydrate, and energy needs. Caffeinated beverages can be incorporated into your diet in reasonable amounts, but they should not be your first choice prior to and after training. Overdoing your caffeine intake can also interfere with your sleep patterns and make you nervous and jittery.

Check Your Hydration Status

You can monitor your hydration status by checking the color and quantity of your urine. Clear or lemonade-colored urine reflects adequate fluid intake, while darker or apple juice–colored urine, or a smaller volume of urine, indicates that you need to step up your fluid intake. Urine tends to be more concentrated when you first wake up, but it should become clearer throughout the day. You should urinate at least four full bladders every day. Certain vitamin supplements can darken or add a neon-glow quality to your urine, so volume rather than color may be a better indicator of hydration status if you take them. Regular monitoring of your weight during heavy training periods can also be helpful in judging fluid balance. If you notice significant weight losses at morning weigh-ins, this may be an indicator of chronic dehydration.

It is definitely worthwhile to focus on your daily fluid intake and make the effort to improve in this area. Athletes who have developed techniques for increasing their fluid intake have consistently found that improved hydration results in enhanced recovery and higher energy levels. Improving your hydration levels is really very simple. Just plan ahead and make sure that water and other hydrating fluids are available for consumption throughout the day. This will ensure that you begin your training sessions with a well-hydrated body.

Designer Waters and Covert Calories

Today you can choose from a number of “designer” waters, often called “enhanced waters,” offering everything from vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants to herbs and caffeine in the mix. Some are flavored with no added sweeteners, while many are flavored and sweetened with a sugar substitute, or flavored and sweetened with a sugar (or a combination of sugar and sugar substitute). The choices can be confusing, and in their advertising these drinks are often confused with sports drinks or the carbohydrate/electrolyte beverages with specific scientific formulations that endurance athletes consume during exercise to replace fluid, carbohydrate, and electrolyte losses.

Read the labels to know just what you are buying. Perhaps your plan is to obtain your vitamins and minerals from a variety of foods and one multivitamin mineral supplement, and you would prefer not to consume too many sugary calories. Check on serving sizes; many bottles contain multiple servings. Waters with added sugar typically provide 70 to 125 calories per 20-ounce bottle (check the serving size on the label), making them close in calories to a soft drink, but minus the carbonation. Some waters clock in at zero calories, but keep an eye on their use of artificial sweeteners. With zero calories and no artificial sweeteners, some of these waters simply provide flavor for individuals who do not like to drink plain water, and for this reason they do encourage good fluid intake.

Herbal and vitamin-enhanced waters may not provide significant amounts of these nutrients per serving; however, if you drink them frequently you could potentially consume enough to take in too much of some of these substances. Currently there is no scientific backing for the idea that consuming oxygen-enriched water can boost energy by increasing the oxygen content of red blood cells, as the advertisements for these products claim.

If one of your goals as an endurance athlete is to decrease weight and body fat, you may be rethinking what you put on your plate, but what you consume from a cup may have as great an impact on your body composition.

Sugar-sweetened drinks contribute the most calories in many American diets, not only soft drinks, but also fruit-flavored drinks and sweetened iced teas. These beverages may also be edging out healthier drinks that provide vitamins and minerals. Sweetened drinks are often available in large or super-sized amounts. And liquid calories may not have the same satisfying effect as solid foods, as slurping replaces chewing, not giving your brain as much to register that you have eaten. While there may be timing intervals during a demanding training period when liquid recovery drinks and the additional calories are needed and welcome, those products also provide specific nutrients for the recovery process, rather than empty calories. So be aware of liquid choices, their calories, and their nutrient contribution, and use them appropriately.

See what to eat and when with Sports Nutrition for Endurance Athletes. Ryan demystifies optimum daily nutrition and shows simple steps to make the best decisions about what you eat and drink.

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