March 18, 2014

Running down the truth on hydration

“I don’t know what’s worse: Drowning beneath the waves, or dying from the thirst.”  O.M.

You can’t turn on the television without being inundated by ads for Gatorade and other sports drinks.

For years we’ve been hit over the head with messages like “drink early and drink often.” Or, “If you wait until you’re thirsty ... It’s too late!” 

Take, for example, the following advice given to runners before a popular marathon in 1996: “Drink big. Drink, drink and drink some more. Not just on race day, but every day.”

The message is aggressive, and has become the dogma among runners and athletes across all sports.

But what if it’s all wrong?

The reality of the situation is that humans (and mammals) have very well-developed and highly functioning mechanisms in place to help conserve and maintain their fluid balance. Other than heart rate and breathing, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more “hard wired” physiological drive than thirst.

Do you honestly think that your body would lie to you about needing water? Hundreds of pages of research have been published about the topic, and the answer is clear. If you drink when you’re thirsty, you will be fine.

Drink as much (or as little) as your body tells you to. If you obey your thirst, and drink only when thirsty, you will be safe, and your performance won’t suffer at all. When you drink to thirst, you optimize your fluid intake. In other words, your thirst will always keep you from drinking too much or too little. There is such a thing as both of those, but drinking to thirst will always prevent you from straying too far in one direction or the other.

In fact, the risks of drinking too much far outweigh the risks of not drinking enough. If you drink too much, you can develop a lethal condition known as hyponatremia, in which the sodium levels of the blood are decreased by excessive water intake. This condition has led to many more deaths in runners than dehydration.

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