Hydrate! Hydrate! Hydrate!

I’m someone who struggles with this. Ordering a glass of water in a restaurant just doesn’t come to mind for me. If it’s breakfast, I’ll order coffee. If it’s lunch, I’ll order a Coke, or a coffee. If it’s dinner, I’ll order a glass of wine, or a beer. Picking up on a pattern here? All of the above have either caffeine or alcohol in them and are diuretics. So, not only am I not hydrating throughout the day, I’m actually dehydrating myself.

I’ve known this for a long time, but I haven’t really felt a need to change my habits. If I knew I was headed out on a ride, I’d chug a big glass of water before I went out, and be sure to fill my Camelback so I’d have water on the trail. I thought this was good enough. The fact that I’d suck back 2 liters of water in the first hour, and be thirsty for more was normal. The fact that my legs started to cramp up around 2 hours was normal. The fact that my legs ached for the next day, or two, after a hard ride was normal.

And, all of that is normal, for someone in a sustained state of dehydration.

If you’re like me, the first thing to realize, is that you can’t re-hydrate your body with just a couple tall glasses of water; your body can’t take it into its cells that fast. This is actually one of the biggest reasons many people misread their state of hydration. You drink a bunch of water, and soon enough you’re running to the washroom; this doesn’t mean you’re properly hydrated; you’ve simply just taken in more than your body can absorb at that time. In actuality, you need to keep up with a moderate and sustained consumption level over days. That’s right, days, or in extreme cases, weeks…

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So, why exactly is hydration so important?

First and foremost, hydration flushes the body of toxins, boosting our immune system’s ability to fight disease. That is without question, a very compelling reason to reach for that extra glass or two of water each day. For an athlete, this is key, because if you’re not healthy, you can’t train properly, or at all. That’s pretty straightforward.

As for athletic performance, a well-hydrated body will simply do the following things, better:

Manage body temperature – if you are hydrated, you can sweat. Your thermoregulatory system will prompt your heart to pump more blood into your capillaries near the surface of the skin where you will perspire, which will help to cool you down.

Transportation of vital mineral and nutrients – if you’re hydrated, your body is going to have an easier time digesting your food, and then your circulatory system will be able to more easily deliver energy and minerals such as electrolytes, which help your muscles maintain power longer. Have back problems, muscle spasms, or achiness on a regular basis? This could simply be from dehydration.

Oxygen utilization – if you’re hydrated, your body can better transport oxygen through your blood stream via red blood cells (hemoglobin) to your muscles, delaying build up of lactic acid.

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Injury prevention – if you’re hydrated, your soft tissues, joints and ligaments are all going to be in better shape and able to stand up to the riggers of training and racing. Have sore knee joints, or hips? Try drinking more water.

Warn off fatigue – if you’re hydrated, your body will maintain its energy level longer. Once you start to sweat, and your hydration level drops you’re going to start to lose blood volume along with your sodium inhibiting your central nervous system. This will result in increasing fatigue, unless you replenish.

Reduce recovery time – if you’re hydrated, all of the above will help decrease your recovery time, allowing you to keep up with your training schedule, make bigger gains, out-climb your buddies on your next weekend ride, or out sprint the lead riders to the finish in your Wednesday night crit.

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As far as I can tell, I walked around in a varying state of dehydration for years, but this is something I’m trying to change. I still have a coffee in the morning; can’t help it. I love coffee. But I start each day with a glass of water, and usually have another couple with lunch. In the afternoons I stay away from coffee altogether. For me, it’s a start anyway.

If you’re interested, here is a pretty cool link that calculates your suggested daily water intake, given your weight and the time you exercise. Remember though, you can’t just binge. Whatever your suggested volumes are, you need to ingest that over the day, otherwise your body won’t be able to make proper use of it.

Hydrating won’t turn you into a super human rider overnight or anything, but not hydrating can sure limit your performance in a big way, so keep on it, day after day – You’ll ride better, and you’re body will thank you.