If you’re like me, you may often feel like you’re in a constant battle against dehydration when training and racing through a Texas summer. It’s not easy to replenish all the fluid lost when you’re working out 8, 10, 12, sometimes even 15 or more hours a week and the temperature is above 100 degrees. Over the years, I’ve fluctuated between many extreme hydration strategies and ended up in a middle place that seems to work pretty well for me. Like with all things nutritionally related, everybody is different, but I hope that sharing a few of the “steps” I’ve been through will help other athletes avoid a few pitfalls and be able to stay hydrated when pushing the limits.
Step 1: Dehydration. When I first started coming to San Antonio, it was for triathlon camps and training for triathlons. The team I was on would workout 2-4 times a day and there was definitely a lot of sweating involved. My performance started suffering; my coach and I suspected that I was chronically dehydrated.
Step 2: Drink too much water. I started drinking a LOT of water. Just plain water. I would fill my stomach up until it felt like it would burst, but I’d still be thirsty. I’d drink more and more, but my body wasn’t absorbing it. On top of that, I’d have trouble sleeping at night because I was so hot and my stomach was so full of water. It was uncomfortable, and the lack of sleep also caused my training to suffer.
Step 3: Eat salt. My coach suggested I add a little bit of salt to my water and food to help absorption and replenish some electrolytes. Like many triathletes, I tend to be extreme in my passion and fervor for performance improvement, so I didn’t just add a pinch of salt here and there—I added salt to EVERYTHING, and a lot of it. The salt definitely helped me retain water and I blew up a bit like Violet Beauregarde in Willy Wonka.
Step 4: Less salt, more sugar. Another thing that helps with fluid absorption is sugar. In addition to fueling the working muscles, that’s part of the reason that all major nutrition beverage products for athletes contain a blend of sugar and electrolytes. Nothing tastes as good after a long, hard ride (or in the middle of it), as a cold coke, or gatorade, or orange juice, or chocolate milk, or any other sugary beverage. Drinking plain water isn’t absorbed as easily, and it also doesn’t taste as good after a while, so I started drinking a lot of various nutrition products. They did work pretty well for keeping me hydrated. But they also worked pretty well for some minor weight gain. Not a lot, by any means, but I did consistently weigh about 5-6 lbs heavier than I would during the winter when I wasn’t drinking as much.
Step 5: Find balance. Like with many things in life, I’ve now come to a balance point. After 10 years of trial and error, I've found a hydration strategy that (mostly) works for me. So what do I do? To start with, I try to be diligent about drinking plain water in the morning and throughout the day. I spend a good bit of time on the pool deck or coaching at a track or park, so I’m outside a lot. I keep a 30 oz insulated water bottle with me that I try to finish during 60-90 minutes of coaching. During workouts, I use a mixture of water, drink mix, and electrolytes to hydrate. I will still stop and drink a cold coke during a very long ride. I do add a little bit of salt to some of my water bottles or take a salt tab or two during big days. I do a little bit of all these things, but not a lot of any one thing.
This article is solely the opinion and personal experiences of the author and is not a medical or dietary prescription.