Hydrate For Your Sporting Adventures: How Much Water, Salt and Sugar Do You Need?

As we come to the end long of a hot and dry summer on the west coast of Scotland, I thought it was a good time to talk about hydration. How much should you drink, and does it matter what kind of drink it is? Should it contain sugar and what about protein?

Well as you all probably know, as well as being the owner and founder of Skirr Skin, I am also a practicing nutritional therapist with a special interest in sport and energy! So I want to share with you a little bit of my knowledge as well as a couple of interesting personal stories as I talk about hydration.

What is too Much? What is too little? How much should you drink when exercising? Well over time sports scientists have been at either ends of the extreme saying don’t drink at all or drink loads of water.  I think the evidence now sits more firmly in the middle and both extremities can be dangerous. If you drink no water at all while you exercise, especially if you are exercising in hot and humid conditions, then you are likely to dehydrate. If you also are someone who sweats a lot, you are going to lose a lot of sodium and as we will see this is crucial too. If you drink too much, then you can end up diluting your blood sodium levels to dangerously low levels which leads to a condition called hyponatraemia which can be lethal. Ever heard of a marathon runner dying after drinking too much? Unfortunately this happens every year. Our blood sodium levels are tightly controlled for good reason and if you over hydrate it is not good news either.

So why do we need to drink? Well it is because we sweat, and this is a competitive advantage that man has against other species. We sweat so that we can cool our body down and run for longer. This was important when we were hunting game on the Savannah in Africa, we might not have been the fastest, but we could keep going when other species couldn’t.

How much we sweat is a very individual thing and can make a big difference to your performance and your recovery. I have found this out myself over the past few years. I previously suffered badly doing activities such as running a half marathon uphill in the heat or doing intensive static bike training indoors in a warm environment and I used to end up with a splitting headache. I never really took much notice, but my t-shirt could be stained with sweat, something I now know can be a good indication of how much sodium you are sweating out. Individuals can vary greatly in how much sodium they lose through sweat, from 10mmol/L to 110mmol/L. So the solution is to personalise your hydration strategy.

If you are someone that sweats more then you need to be thinking about replacing the electrolytes you are losing, and you may need a lot more than you think. I personally having been using high dose electrolytes and amazingly I have cured my headache problem. I just wish I had discovered the cause sooner! I use a product with 1500mg of sodium, which is a strong dose, and I use it prior to and during exercise. If you are not sure how much you need then you can check out the company Precision Hydration who have a great online quiz you can take to assess your needs and they offer a range of electrolyte solutions.

So as well as electrolytes you might want to consider if you need carbohydrates in the form of sugar in your sports drink. You may not need any if you are exercising for shorter than 45 minutes duration but longer or if it is very intensive and you likely will need the energy to avoid hitting the wall or bonking which is when your glycogen reserves are used up and you can't perform any longer. Alternatively you may wish to get your carbs from a food source such as flapjack or banana, this is a good idea if you suffer from any gut upset caused by having too many sugary drinks or gels. The ideal sugar concentration for performance based on the research is a 6% carbohydrate solution meaning 6g of sugar for each litre of water. You can make your own sports drink, which is what I recommend, by diluting fruit juice to get the right concentration level. That way you avoid any nasties such as flavourings, colourings or preservatives which may aggravate your gut and generally are not so good for you. As with all sugary foods you want to limit your consumption of them generally as overdoing it is not going to be good for you and can contribute towards blood sugar problems, tooth decay and poor gut health.

So how do you differentiate between the different types of sports drinks, hypertonic, isotonic, and hypotonic?

Hypertonic drinks have a higher osmolarity than blood. Osmolarity refers to the concentration of dissolved particles of chemicals and minerals, such as sodium and other electrolytes. These drinks are good for when you need high energy levels such as very cold conditions or good for refuelling glycogen post exercise. They tend to be less beneficial in the heat as the combination of heat stress and the high sugar content can lead to gut distress.

Isotonic drinks have a similar osmolarity to blood with around the 6% carbohydrate level and between 300 and 500ml of sodium per litre. They are good for shorter duration and higher intensity activities when getting energy in is more important than needing to rehydrate.

Hypotonic drinks have a lower osmolarity compared to blood. They generally have between 3 and 4% carbohydrates and a higher level of electrolytes which makes them a good combination to be used alongside supplementary food sources for endurance activities. These are the best option if your main goal is to rehydrate.

Lastly, do you need protein in your sports drink? There is plenty of research out there looking at whether you should add in protein powders like whey or other plant based options to your sports drink. I personally don’t think you need to do this unless you are doing a very long endurance event. Usually if you are consuming protein within two hours of finishing your training, then you will be meeting the needs of your muscles to help repair any tissue damage and to support muscle hypertrophy (increasing muscle mass). Making sure you have protein regularly through the day after your training and event will also help – so for example elite athletes are likely to have a top of protein smoothie before bed to maximise muscle building. But if you are doing an ultra-distance type of event, or training for one, then having protein during the event will be necessary, having an occasional protein bar or adding in some protein powder to your sports drink are both a good options.

As a nutritional therapist I always recommend you make your own sports energy drink. It is not that difficult to do, you can tweak it to suit your individual needs and support your performance goals and it can help you avoid gastrointestinal distress and other unwanted side effects from some of the commercial products.

 

Here are a couple of suggestions of drinks that are great options:

Coconut and lime Isotonic

  • 2000ml coconut water
  • 50ml which is roughly Juice of one lime
  • 250ml water
  • 1 1/2 tsp honey

 This will separate a little but just give it a little shake before you drink it and it will be fine.

Pomegranate and Beetroot Hypotonic

  • 200ml pomegranate juice
  • 100ml beetroot juice
  • 100ml orange juice
  • 250ml water

As I mentioned before the level of electrolytes you need add to drinks is highly personalised based on your own needs. If you are not sure try 1/8  to ¼ of a teaspoon of sea salt to begin with. Electrolytes include calcium, magnesium, potassium, sodium, hydrogen phosphate, bicarbonate and chloride and you can’t get all of these from plain table salt. You can buy electrolyte tablets or drops (which is what I use), other sources are sea salt or Himalayan salt and coconut water. I will write a more detailed blog on electrolytes another day.

Please head over and check out our great skincare options. As the only truly sustainable sport skincare brand we deliver a highly effective anti-chafing solution, our Sport Body Balm, and a great Athlete's Foot Balm too.

 

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