by Ravi Sharma

The importance of proper hydration is a common belief amongst athletes and the general public alike. However, it is not always easy to find the time to pop open a water bottle for five minutes when you are rushing about your day or playing sports. But, even people who try to brush off the importance of drinking water may be underestimating their own thirst levels and how drastically dehydration can affect health.

Water is necessary for life and has numerous vital roles in the body. Though it is not used for consumption as a drink, water helps keep the body properly hydrated by eliminating waste and conserving body fluids such as minerals. It also provides nutrients that the body needs to remain healthy. In addition to these essential functions, water is also important for maintaining high performance levels during physical activity.

So, how much water should an athlete be drinking daily? According to the 2007 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, men and women should aim to drink eight 8-ounce glasses of total beverages a day or three cups of caffeinated beverages with one-half cup of milk; so long as they are replacing other beverages with them. The American Council on Exercise (ACE) recommends consuming two quarts of water with each meal and snack.

When exercising, different sports guidelines vary. The ACE recommends 2 ¼ quarts of water with each meal and snack. According to the National Women’s Golf Association, women can drink up to one cup of liquid per hour while they play. However, men should never drink more than two cups of caffeinated beverages per hour during exercise.

There are many reasons why an athlete should be drinking water. Studies have found that dehydration can decrease performance in several physical activities including cross-country skiing, running and cycling ; even in dehydrated athletes who were not exerting themselves mentally or physically (1). In addition to altering athletic performance, it has also been found that hydrated athletes performed better on cognitive tasks (2).

When athletes become dehydrated, the body loses muscle mass and fluid from the circulatory system. This can lead to increased fatigue and limitation of strength. Athletes who are properly hydrated have higher levels of lactate than non-hydrated athletes which can help with pace on running or cycling (3). And, when water is consumed with high intensity exercise, performance increases further by an average of 10% (4).

However, many people think that their thirst is their best indication for whether or not they have become dehydrated. But, according to Dr. Peter Secher of Harrogate College in England, this assumption may be wrong when it comes to helping athletes avoid dehydration (5). His studies show that athletes usually have to wait until they are up to 2% dehydrated before their thirst mechanism kicks in. However, this level of dehydration may already cause a decrease in exercise performance. This means that athletes might have become dehydrated long before they are thirsty.

If thirst is not the best indicator of dehydration, then how can an athlete be sure he or she has a high enough level of hydration? One way is by monitoring the color and frequency of urine. Healthy urine should be clear (unless you are drinking coffee or taking vitamin B pills). A dark yellow color means you are at least 2% dehydrated and straw-colored means you need much more water in your system to achieve proper hydration.

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