Up Your Fitness Game. Drink More Water

Hydrating with water is plain and simple.

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Even if you work a desk from nine to five and consider your commute to be an adequate day’s exercise, you probably aren’t drinking enough water. And if you’re adding in a substantial training regimen, you may be more at risk of dehydration. “Dehydration is the number one performance inhibitor,” says Susan Kitchen, a board certified specialist in sports dietetics and a seven-time Ironman finisher. “It’s also the primary cause of fatigue during activity, long before fuel depletion begins to drain your efforts. Thirst is not a good indicator of fluid requirements — during exercise or at rest — and in fact, by the time you feel thirsty, you are already dehydrated.” As it turns out, drinking enough water to stay hydrated during a workout is a little more complicated than it’s made out to be.

How to Stay Hydrated

Drink water during work. Besides comprising 70–75 percent of muscle tissue and acting as the primary component in blood, water is crucial to many bodily functions — protection of the spinal cord, digestion, hearing and sight, to name a few — even during long periods of inactivity. And if you do exercise, water becomes that much more crucial. According to Kitchen, “hydration begins pre-, mid- and post-run.” (Read: you should be drinking water consistently throughout your day.) Furthermore, if you exercise in the morning before heading to the office, you’re starting in the red. “It takes six hours to rehydrate properly — a firehose approach does not work,” says Kitchen. And the same strategy holds true for those who prefer the post-work routine. Get those fluids in before T-minus 30 minutes until your workout.

Food matters. There is some good news for anyone averse to drinking plain water. A good portion of your daily fluid comes from food — which according to Kitchen comes in at approximately 20 percent. Many fruits and vegetables come with high water content. For example, cucumbers are 96 percent water and tomatoes weigh in at 94 percent. Interestingly enough, even part-skim-milk ricotta cheese (74 percent) and roasted chicken (63–67 percent) have surprisingly high water content. All this isn’t to say that you should eat your water — just that you should think about hydration as a complex system encompassing nearly everything you ingest. You wouldn’t want to see race volunteers holding out heads of iceberg lettuce (96 percent) as you round the turn at mile fifteen), would you?

Sports drinks are good! But not always. We’re trained to believe in the hydrating power of electrolyte-filled sports drinks. But beverages like Gatorade often contain a big dose of sugar, which is the latest row in the nutritional label to come under fire from experts, and rightly so. Sugar harms your liver, prompts weight gain and messes with metabolism. These drinks should be avoided by people who are minimally active. However, “if [a training] session is longer than seventy-five minutes, a sports drink is recommended to supply carbs and electrolytes,” says Kitchen. If you’re highly active, those demonized sugars might be crucial. Otherwise, stick to plain water.

Don’t overdo it. As with everything, smart moderation is key, and there is such a thing as too much. Over-hydration is known as hyponatremia, a dangerous and potentially life-threatening condition caused by low blood sodium levels. This occurs when water intake and sweat output are great enough to produce a dilution of the blood. Ultra athletes and slower athletes competing in longer events are particularly at risk here. Sports drinks with sodium and electrolyte tablets are a smart way to avoid hyponatremia during particularly long and rigorous workouts. Kitchen recommends hydrating with sports drinks for any exercise that lasts longer than 75 minutes.

There is no magic number. Remember that old adage that says to drink eight cups of water a day? It shouldn’t come as a surprise that this is a simplification and isn’t true for everyone. “No one fluid requirement will suffice for everyone because of the disparity in gender, body size, physical activity and environmental conditions,” says Kitchen. The Institute of Medicine doesn’t specify exact water requirements, but reports 91 ounces for women and 125 ounces for men as general hydration recommendations (including through food). Kitchen clarifies that these numbers are “assumed to be adequate for most sedentary or inactive people” — but for everyone else, drink up.

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