Training your body to drink

The night before a big event or race people often get in the zone of prepping and thinking about the race the next day. “I’m racing tomorrow, what should I drink?” At this point, we need to have more work done than that. It’s something that you’re supposed to think of at the beginning of your race prep. You must try different things to work out what suits you better, and sits well with your gut, especially if we’re talking about long events like marathons or Ironman, which last for hours and hours. You need to know how your body copes with combinations of different types of energy intake, because other than water, you need electrolytes, energy, and carbohydrates. What types of fuel do you take? When do you take it? All these things, they should be something you figure out while you’re training and not the night before a big race.”

This is particularly important for people who experience significant water or electrolyte loss through sweat – people who require more fluids often can’t handle bigger volumes. But even those with comparatively smaller losses might find it hard to drink enough to keep up with their hydration needs. Lots of research has shown that gastrointestinal issues like bloating, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea are common in athletes, particularly those who engage in endurance events, and these issues often impair performance or subsequent recovery. The digestive system is sensitive to water and nutrient intake during exercise, which can leave many athletes feeling like the better option is to not upset the gut at all by avoiding intake altogether. That’s not what you want as dehydration can also lead to gut issues and other performance and health issues.

The better solution is to train your gut the same way you train other systems in your body. Just like a training plan starts with low volume and intensity and builds over time, so too should an athlete build tolerance for fluid intake until it matches the amount of water and essential nutrients lost through sweat. This process, ideally, should start as soon as possible—not the night before the race.

Train, Train, Train….

Knowing how much you lose in various conditions—from running in hot and humid weather to cycling on windy days—can help you dial in exactly what you need to develop an individualized hydration plan. This might look like 150mls of water / CHO drink on an alternative 5km. This can ensure you avoid both dehydration and over-drinking, which, in extreme cases, can cause hyponatremia. Start small and build up.

Most of us don’t drink enough at the best of times. Sipping on water regularly throughout the day is crucial. Other drinks can be added in here and other options such as soup and Jelly can also be included.

Experiment with different formulations. What’s in your drink matters—a lot. In addition to finding the right one to replace fluids and essential nutrients to meet your specific losses, you’ll want to find one that is tolerable to digest during workouts and races. Sport drinks come in three general formulations:

· Hypotonic: a lower concentration of carbohydrates and electrolytes than blood

· Isotonic: a similar concentration of carbohydrates and electrolytes to blood

· Hypertonic: a higher concentration of carbohydrates and electrolytes than blood

Just be mindful of your teeth when you add extra CHO to the drinks and the amount of times you are sipping on it. Consider multiple sources. Some find that getting sodium and carbohydrates from salt tabs, gels, bars, or real food makes it easier to then drink more plain water. Others find they can only tolerate fluids, not solids, during intense efforts. Experiment to find what makes your gut happy.

Rome was not built in a day. If you normally drink 200mls per hour, but discover your sweat rate is 500mls per hour, don’t double your drinking right away. That could be an unpleasant experience. In one study, athletes who were not accustomed to drinking during exercise had a two-fold risk of developing GI symptoms compared to athletes who already established a drinking regimen. Ease into hydration by adding 100mls or so to your previous hourly intake for a few workouts, then another ounce for a few more, until you get at (or close to) your goal. This can gradually train your gut to tolerate the increased load (It can also let you know if you’ve got a threshold below your goal intake).

It’s OK if you can’t stomach an exact one-to-one replacement ratio of sweat to hydration, especially if you are a heavy sweater. Some of us simply can’t drink fast enough to keep up with sweat losses. The goal in training your gut is to drink to stay hydrated or prevent significant dehydration. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. Find out how much you can tolerate during training and aim for that instead; make up the difference in the hours after the workout or race.

Just like you adjust your bike fit or buy a new wetsuit after a significant weight gain or loss, your hydration plan should be fluid!! It’s important to test your sweat rate during different sessions and different seasons to gauge your needs. Age, weight, and fitness level can also impact your hydration needs.


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