As the heat of summer gradually builds into an oven-like experience here on the Mediterranean Coast of Turkey I am reminded annually to renew and improve my habit of hydration. That habit has gotten better for me but I still notice weaknesses in it. And I am betting the habit has room for improvement in many of you also. I can point you to an explanation why this is a challenge for us, then offer some ideas for making it better.
I have been re-reading the wonderful book Surviving The Extremes: What happens to the body and mind at the limits of human endurance – by Dr. Kenneth Kamler. It’s a book on my shelf that is worth picking up from time to time, to absorb a few more points of wisdom.
In the chapter on High Seas, and again in the chapter on Deserts Dr. Kamler examines the effects of (de)hydration and salt concentrations on the human body and brain.
“Two thirds of the human body is composed of water. The average person contains about 50 liters of fluid and loses a minimum of 2 liters in daily bodily maintenance.”
He goes on to briefly explain the ways the body uses up water in those functions, then notes, “At rest on a hot day, it can easily use up to 5 liters. When the body is down even 1 liter [2%], its functions become impaired. Once down 5 liters, fatigue and dizziness set in.”
And, with more loss it gets a lot worse after that!
“The body can tolerate a fluid loss of about 5 percent before developing any obvious symptoms of dehydration, such as dizziness or fatigue, but even a 1 percent loss can impair normal functioning.
[The state of being slightly under-hydrated] triggers no alarms nonetheless subtly affects our performance. When we drink enough to bring the deficit to within 3 percent of body water, our thirst is quenched.”
Do you notice the gap? The sensation of thirst shuts off when we fill up to the 3 percent mark, but performance is still impaired while we are below 1 to 2 percent. Drinking until quenched shuts off the alarm, but it does not mean the water-tank is full again. Between Thirsty and Full there is a gap and our performance can suffer if we don’t listen to more subtle cues to determine we’re sufficiently topped off and ready to go again.
I underlined that word “obvious” to emphasize that there are loud warning signals for dehydration that you and external observers can notice and then there are ‘softly whispered’ cues that only you will notice if you learn to tune into to your body. These are not warning alarms, but subtle changes in function and feeling. If we wait until the warning signals go off to drink we’re already in a diminished performance state. If we listen to the softer symptomatic cues that come even before we feel thirsty then we can maintain fluid levels better – keeping them farther above the 3 percent line.
The likely fact is that almost all of us need to hydrate a lot more than we think or feel we do. And drinking many forms of tasty, chemical-infused drinks may not count towards real hydration, or they may even makes the situation worse. The body does not respond to chemical-laden fluid the way it responds to pure water. We have both a missing habit for drinking pure water and bad habits of consuming other fluids that mask our chronic dehydration. Many of us are likely living in a continual state of under-hydration, and therefore living our days under-performing, simply because we don’t have some basic good habits (for drinking, as well as for fueling and sleeping) in place.
Do you happen to have those good habits?
And, if one wants to go further than mere habits, learn to recognize the more subtle symptoms inside the body that tell when the optimal metabolic conditions are dropping – in terms of fluids, minerals, fuels, etc. – and practice maintenance and recovery techniques before, during and after practice and races. I feel this is what Scott Jurek, the ultra-running guru, demonstrates in his attention to his body and his foods (a bit more on him below).
Healthy Habits = Higher Performance
Every once in a while someone asks me what my race/event hydration strategy is. My strategy? A lifestyle of drinking well all day long, every day, every season. And yet, this is a challenge for me too!
If we are waiting until our practice time or waiting until our big race day to eat special healthy foods or drink enough water and take in enough minerals – it is too late – we are missing the whole point of being an athlete, a responsible athlete. (As I publish this, in a tragic coincidence, an age-group athlete died at the Ironman Frankfurt from the effects of heat – which suggests he was poorly prepared for this event in the simple yet profound area as proper hydration and electrolyte replenishment).
This goes along with my thoughts about preparing for your open water race – we should not only practice everything we will do, wear, use and consume in a race, we should live in constant readiness for our life’s variety of action. Be ready in season and out. In addition to having enough water on board for sport we need as much for work, for sleep (repair and restoration processes), and even for emotional and mental stability.
But how will one know he has enough?
“The hypothalamus sends a water-seeking signal to the cerebral cortex – which we experience as the sensation of thirst. The thirst signal does not get triggered immediately.”
Let me pause in this Kamler quote to re-emphasize this: the point he is making is that the body can lose that one liter or more of water and start functioning in an impaired state of performance BEFORE YOU FEEL THIRSTY. As athletes intent on peak performance – or as normal people intent on optimal experience any time of the day – we need to remember that our body’s need fluid before our brain sends the signal of thirst. So, unless one is hooked up to some super-duper monitor/warning device (they make smart-phone apps for this you know!) we need to be drinking by a habit that keeps us within that optimal zone of hydration without having to be a total geek about it.
“Sensors in the blood vessels are continually “tasting” the salt concentration of the blood. It takes a loss of about 3 percent of body water before blood becomes salty enough to set off the alarm (the alarm will also go off if excess salt is ingested through foods). There is practical value to the delay, since it means that humans are not slaves to small changes in salt concentration. We are free to perform other activities if we are not driven to drink constantly.” (underline mine)
We are not a slave because we are not driven to drink above this 3% level – that would be very disruptive to living, because even normal daily activity will force our levels down constantly. But when we are free to do so, we can afford to drink more and likely should.
For more extreme applications of this principle of ‘healthy living = better racing’ you may check out the book Eat And Run by ultra-running legend, Scott Jurek. I found a great deal of inspiration in it (and we happen to be the same age!) and I even began my own vegetarian eating experiment this summer because of it.
As Scott demonstrated, keeping the body properly fueled and cooled was a massive task in extreme races such as the Badwater 135 (mile race in Death Valley, California USA).
This task is made so much easier when the athlete trains his system in daily life by keeping it fueled with optimal food and hydrated so the tissues are enabled to function their best under most extreme conditions and allowed to recover/repair after the stress. It may be many of these ultra-athletes are just simply dedicated students of their own bodies and masters of self-maintenance rather than being human freaks of nature. Even if not going extreme, a greater level of sensitivity and understanding is definitely within the reach of citizen athletes if we care to observe, study and practice it. Inspirational examples abound.
We prepare our systems for optimal performance through daily lifestyle practice, not just during the hard training sets. When in the act of training we are tapping those systems for their support – if they are neglected outside of the activity, we cannot count on them during the activity. It is in our daily habits of eating, drinking, sleeping, and rest that we are in the act of building those systems so they are ready to support us in training.
Note of caution: in 2010 Fran Crippen died in the FINA 10k open water race in UAE in very warm water conditions – about 30 C (86 F), and I imagine the air was at least that hot too. It is probably not often that people find themselves training or racing in water that is too-warm to be safe, but it is possible in hot climates and in children/elderly oriented pools. In these conditions, even full-hydration may not be enough to keep one safe because there is no way for the under-acclimated swimmer to cool down his internal temperature. Just as when swimming in water cooler than you are acclimatized to, also be very careful about swimming in water that is too warm.
My Hydration Habits
I am sure you can find a lot of advice about this among your athletic friends – hopefully, most of it will point in the same direction. I am not super-technical about this myself. Here are some things I do in my daily life and they are working well for me, with room for improvement I am sure:
- I have a special water cup with lid that I carry with me around the house, the home office, and on my travels. This special cup reminds me to drink.
- I drink a full glass of water in the morning right when I get up.
- I prefer room temperature water at most times of the year (exceptfor immediate refreshment in really hot weather). I feel like drinking more this way.
- I often add a homemade mixture of salt/potassium/lemon juice to my water when plain water does not seem to quench my thirst.*
- I quit drinking caffeinated tea (except green) this year because of caffeine’s disruption to my sleep quality – the absence is a benefit to my hydration too. I do not count drinking things other than plain water (with electrolytes) as adequate hydration.
- One way I gauge my hydration level is by whether I have to get up in the middle of the night to pee – no pee? Not enough fluids in my system. **
- Another way I gauge my hydration is by the color of my urine – deep color means I need more fluids to flush stuff out, while very light color is a good sign. And, also the smell tells something too.
- When I have a glass of wine or a beer I make it a point to drink at least the same amount of water if not twice as much.
- I travel with a tall thermal cup and I collect all the water they will serve on the airplane (and ask for a lemon or lime wedge). I save the salt packets that come with the food to sprinkle in. I no longer accept the free wine or tea or anything dehydrating while flying. (The air in plane cabins really dries us out and make jetlag even worse.)
- I don’t usually drink during practice (up to 2 hours) – it only makes me have to go pee more often. If I need to drink then that means I didn’t drink enough the day and hours before practice. (See comment about about Fran Crippen and warm-water swimming). I drink the day before, the hours before, and refill right after.
* I first learned the idea of partly salting my water from reading about Thor Heyeredahl and crews’ 1947 expedition in a balsawood raft Kontiki sailing across the South Pacific Ocean. Very cool story.
** It is about time to write an article on the topic of using the toilet in open-water!
What are your favorite habits or routines with hydration? Please share in the comment section below.
A rule of thumb for your new hydration habit: drink today what you’ll use tomorrow.
So, let’s drink up today, for tomorrow we will need it!