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Hydration Tips: Triathletes

by Doug Carr in Train With Grain, Triathlons

Hydration, like nutrition, is a very personal matter when it come to types, quantity and the timing of intake. What works for one person is not necessarily going to be the magic bullet for another. There are charts that will estimate your intake based on a “sweat rate” test, while others might go about it from a body weight standpoint based on so many ounces per hour. Whatever method you wish to employ, it’s only going to work if you apply it in real world situations and know that your method is on track. Training and racing can present similar litmus tests regarding what works, but they can also be complete opposites. Let’s look at some areas to consider regarding hydration and at least give you options to make knowledgeable choices.

Hydration Types

I believe the act of hydrating should be considered separately from fueling and electrolyte replacement. That’s not to say that there aren’t solutions out there that can do all three. In fact there are specific “drinks” that combine all three qualities, but more often than not, your hydration needs will require the use of plain water to supplement the administering of the fueling and electrolyte components. This sounds pretty basic, but there are many a tale of woe out there where a race takes a nasty turn, and the only thing consumed to that point was some sort of “sports” or “power” drink. Again, separate your hydration from your fueling and electrolytes.

Hydration Requirements

As mentioned above, the sweat rate test can be used to determine hydration requirements. Check out Sweat Rate Test for the Runner’s World explanation. Required hydration means keeping the body from going into a dehydrated state. Weather, clothing, body structure and fitness level are just a few of the things that contribute to how fast you lose hydration either through sweating, respiration or bladder/bowel elimination. Keeping hydrated without over- or under-hydrating is sometimes a delicate balance, and the stakes go up the longer the event takes to complete. Mild dehydration occurs at about 3% or less of lost bodyweight. Moderate dehydration occurs in the range of 3% to 6% weight loss, and anything above that can be considered serious which may lead to cramping, coma and even death. If attempts are not made to consistently replace fluid loss, at a rate that keeps body water in balance, dehydration will occur.

The Thirst Mechanism

During the day, our thirst mechanism tells us when we need to drink. We feel the urge to quench our thirst and we do so. Under more vigorous conditions, our thirst mechanism tends to get dulled or sidelined by the activity at hand. “If I can just pass the next two aid stations, and not waste time to drink, I’ll beat that many more people to the finish line!” Do you know someone like that? I sure do! So knowing that the thirst may be dulled, toned down or shut off on your next event, what are you going to do to stay hydrated? My advice is to drink early, and drink consistently. Consistently might mean a few swallows at each aid station. If you come in slightly dehydrated at the finish, you’ve obviously done a good job of hydrating. From that point it would be wise to slowly intake fluids to bring your levels back up.

The Urine Test

If you’re in an event for anything over two to three hours, and you haven’t urinated or even had the urge to visit the “Blue Room”, chances are you’re behind in hydration. One fairly good indicator of your hydrated state is the color of your urine. Anything darker than everyday light-yellow is a sign that you’re behind, and you should be consuming regularly over the next several hours to bring it back to near-clear. I myself have been in a dehydrated state such that it took well into the evening to get my urine color back to normal. And in the hours leading up to that point, I couldn’t seem to consume enough fluids. Not a good thing to put your body through. So when I ask my athletes, “What color is your urine?” the snickers are gone and it’s as if I was asking them what they ate for lunch. And they better know too!

Methods of Hydrating

How you choose to consume fluids is another personal choice.

On the Bike: On bike systems include the standard bottle cages that are easy to use in all conditions, to the more complex and aerodynamic systems that strive to shave precious seconds off your finish time. I do like the aerodynamic drinking tube systems as the fluid is always right near my lips. It’s not an “out of sight, out of mind” thing, and because my wrist and watch is right there in the vicinity (on the aerobars), it’s easy to time my drinks too. The added advantage to this type of systems is being able to refill it on the fly for longer events. As with any new piece of equipment, train with it first before racing with it.

On the Run: In my years of coaching first-time marathoners through a 26 week program, at week 6 we took away all the paper cups at home base. The distance had climbed to 8 – 9 miles and it was getting critical for them to have fluids with them. From that point on, they were responsible for carrying their own hydration system out on the routes. There are a number of methods available now, from hydration packs, to belts, to handheld systems. They come in varying sizes and capacities and it’s a good idea to have at least two types in your stash of equipment.

A smaller system or handheld bottle will suit you well on those shorter runs when a back pack is too much, and going without is questionable. Handhelds can be filled halfway, and they also have the advantage of easy refills. If you’re new to drinking from paper cups on course, it helps to close the top of the cup while drinking on the run. That way your sinuses don’t get a bath. You’ll thank me for that tip later.

Anxious Dehydration

Well, I didn’t know what else to call it. Anxiety runs moderate to high in triathlons. “Did I bring everything for any circumstance? Will I have enough time to get my bike ready and transitions set up? Will there even be enough room? Man, he looks fast! Is he in my age group?   Why does my wetsuit feel two sizes too small now?” The Porta Potty lines are long and growing, there’s 15 minutes to my wave and I’m standing in line for the second…no wait…third time, because I gotta pee again. You can already be on the road to dehydration, and you still have the swim ahead of you. If you don’t think you sweat on the swim, I’ve got some news for you. Not much to drink out there. Well, there is if you’re a fish. The point is, somehow you’re going to have to replace those fluids. The bike is the best time to do it. You can ease up if you have to, and your stomach isn’t bouncing around like it will be on the run. Get into to your rhythm, drink when you can, and continue with your intake.

Dehydration can have very serious consequences. No need to go there!

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Doug Carr Google: Doug Carr
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