8 eight ounce glasses of water a day.
Who in the hell even came up with that recommendation?
Seriously...who? Literally no one knows.
The truth is (especially if we’re active) we’re told that we basically need to gulp down water every minute of the day and on the days we forget we’re supposed to feel like lazy sacks of crap who don’t give a toss about our health.
So is hydration even important then? The answer is:
Sooooooo then it DOES mean we should be pounding water back any chance we have our hands free to grasp onto a water bottle then.
Well, it depends.
Before I elaborate on that extremely unhelpful answer, first let’s talk about what hydration really is. Many of us have the generic definition in our heads of “having enough water in our body,” but that’s not the full story.
What is Proper Hydration?
You are properly hydrated when you have two things. Many, however, are only familiar with the first.
1.) Having enough body water to sustain normal functions and 2.) a good balance of the major electrolytes (sodium, potassium and chloride) in your system. If you are lacking in one or both, you are dehydrated.
So, why is being hydrated important for our bodies? Let me give you the textbook version.
Our body is made of roughly 60% water and every major system is influenced by our hydration. Water transports nutrients to organs and cells, clears toxins, lubricates joints and bones, helps regulate our body temperature and impacts brain function.
That said, even though water balance is so important to our bodies’ optimal function, we can barely feel it when we’re dehydrated.
Many of you may be thinking "pbbbbbt this chick is a quack. My mouth is like cotton and I'm super weak when I’m dehydrated." I can totally feel it. (Especially when we’re talking hangovers.)
The problem with that is if you are feeling symptoms that tangible, you are already severely dehydrated. And here’s the thing:
Dehydration is defined as loss of only 2% of your body weight.
To put that in perspective. If I were to weigh a football player before practice and he was 200 pounds and then weighed him after practice at 196, he is dehydrated. And this happens A LOT. I’ve had athletes lose as much as 15 pounds in a practice during camp.
And they don't feel a thing.
It’s also worth noting that some athletes sweat more than others despite doing the exact same workout/practice and this has to do with genetics, heat acclimation (growing up in a cold climate versus a warm one) and body size. If you’re a heavy sweater (or salty sweater, as I also like to call it) you will be dehydrated faster.
When this starts to become serious where it comes to exercise is that when you get to 3% loss of body weight, that’s when you see a decline in athletic performance. I’m talking inefficient oxygen delivery to the muscles, increased soreness due to toxin buildup, less focus, more mental mistakes, impaired motivation and increased perceived rate of exertion (your practice or weightlifting feels harder than it would normally).
That's a lot of impairment for just not drinking enough of your water.
Now, some of you likely carry around a water bottle during a lifting session or other type of physical activity and use it often. If that's the case, more power to you because I'm horrible of committing to that level.
But studies show that if you’re a heavy sweater, just drinking “whenever you feel thirsty” doesn’t give your body enough water to properly hydrate.
So this brings me back to my first point of this article. Should we be drinking to hydrate even when we aren’t thirsty?
The answer is: if you are a) a heavy sweater (and you know who you are) or b) exercising in warm weather conditions (80 degrees F or higher) you can’t wait until you’re thirsty to drink.
I tell athletes to drink one liter of water for every hour of exercise plus another 24 ounces (or about ¾ of a liter) for each pound of body weight lost.
That’s why I recommend tracking before exercise and after exercise weights if you are concerned about hydration. Please keep in mind I do not recommend daily weights because this can cause an unhealthy obsession with your weight even if you are just doing it to track water loss.
However, if you are a heavy sweater, you should try tracking your pre and post exercise weights on about 2-3 occasions to see how much you lose on average. That way, you have a good idea of how much to hydrate.
Another reason solid fluid recommendations are sort of funky is because all of the fluid we get in our bodies doesn’t come from water. If you love snacking on carrots and grapes, congrats! Those are high-water foods that contribute to your fluid goal.
To make things more complicated, the body makes its own water when it metabolizes food and there’s possible no way you can track that.
With that in mind, there is no “right” fluid recommendation to hand out. It's just too difficult given all of the variables contribute to hydration per individual. When it comes to giving your body enough fluid, it’s more important to replace what you’ve lost if you exercise in heat, exercise heavily (more on that later) or sweat a ton. If neither of these apply to you, you’re fine just drinking when you’re thirsty or you notice you haven't had fluids in a while.
It's that simple.
So that’s fluid which is the first half of the hydration story. What about electrolytes?
Importance of Electrolytes and Hydration
Whenever you sweat, you are losing mostly sodium, but also potassium and a small amount of chloride. These are called electrolytes and are so named because they are “conductors” for the electrical charges in our bodies responsible for nerve impulses and muscle contraction.
They also play a role in hydration by moving water around to where it needs to be. If there aren’t enough electrolytes in your system, cells don’t get the water they need, shrivel up and don’t function the way they should in our bodies.
Also, due to their role in muscle contraction, an imbalance of electrolytes can cause painful muscle cramps.
And that’s why Gatorade exists. It was made for athletes for the purpose of replacing both fluid AND electrolytes because the scientists behind Gatorade understood what formulation was necessary to promote optimal hydration.
Keep in mind though, you got to sweat it to get it. Basically, what Gatorade and sports dietitians everywhere recommend is that you only need to drink Gatorade after 1 hour of intense physical activity. Water will suffice for anything less.
That means your 9-year-old nephew doesn’t need a Gatorade after 30 minutes of skipping around a soccer field.
There just haven’t been enough electrolytes lost to justify it. And let me acknowledge a question a crew athlete asked me once that’s since become a common complaint: no, it doesn’t matter if you worked out for only 30 minutes and the workout felt “really hard.” You still don’t need Gatorade.
Now, if you’re a heavy sweater or exercising in heat there could be an exception to this rule, but 1 hour+ is the rule of thumb otherwise.
The bottom line?
Hydration is more complex than you might think and you can’t necessarily beat it from just guzzling as much water as you can throughout the day. Especially since water isn’t always the best hydration choice depending on the individual and the circumstances.
You can also get these fluids from food and other beverages. Hydration also has to do with electrolyte balance which is equally as important. Staying hydrated is important for our health, but it’s especially important for optimal weightlifting and athletic performance.
Just be sure to be familiar with what you should be drinking and when based on what we've talked about.