The art of hydrating

The key to an athlete’s supremacy is his/her ability to remember to hydrate.

An athlete refreshes himself during the Paris Marathon. If a player does not hydrate, he/she could die of exhaustion or cardiac arrest. Some of the leading injuries or death have been due to dehydration, says the columnist.   -  AP

A few years ago, FIFA allowed players to take water breaks without stoppage of time. The logic: a hydrated player is quicker and has better mental focus. The result is a faster, quicker and more strategic game. This gives rise to better viewership due to a fast-paced game.

As a nutrition coach, I have a different perspective. If a player does not hydrate, he/she could die of exhaustion or cardiac arrest. Some of the leading injuries or death have been due to dehydration.

Today, as I work with Shikhar Dhawan on long innings I always ask him to push his levels of hydration pre-game and even during mini breaks when players change gloves or get a chance to sneak in a 30s drinks break. I believe the key to an athlete’s supremacy is his/her ability to remember to hydrate.

A few facts

The human body is up to 60% water. The human brain alone is 73% water and the lungs are 83% water. A 2% loss of water results in 25-30% drop in human performance. For most players, a 2% loss of water via sweat is as little as 1 kg of weight loss whilst playing. When I work with my athletes, I weigh them before they go into a game. I then weigh them after the game in dry clothes, and I check what is their water or sports drink consumption during that time. If there is a negative body weight loss, it’s a red flag for me. We thus need to infuse better hydration habits.

Now you will fail as a player to hydrate. Why? Because when you get dehydrated the brain takes about 20 to 30 minutes to signal dehydration. By then you have already crossed over to the danger zone of your brain shutting down. So you cannot remember to hydrate and when you do get the signal you are doomed. Therefore, it is of paramount importance during training to learn ‘how to hydrate your body’ before you learn to play!

Today I ask coaches to have a special whistle that is blown only for a 12s water break, where a kid can stop at the sound of a whistle and then get back to playing.

Don’t always think of a water break; players use that excuse to slow down their heart rate by indulging in time-wasting tactics in training. Instead a focused short water break every 18 minutes or so works wonders on mental cognition or thinking, such that you create a thinking athlete rather than a zombie player!

Once players are convinced that they should hydrate, the next question is why do we lose water?

Well, when you play, you use your brains and your muscles. These organs overheat. They need to cool down to perform over extended time. You need an air-conditioner system to cool down. So your skin, the largest organ, becomes your body’s own AC. It cools you down by allowing you to sweat. When sweat hits your skin, it begins to jump into the atmosphere by a process called evaporation, and you, thus, feel a cooling sensation.

Sweat is no ordinary water being lost. It is unique. It contains minerals or salts such as sodium, potassium, chloride, magnesium and other trace elements. That’s why your sweat always tastes salty and leaves behind white marks. So sweating excessively causes loss of 1-3 litres of precious liquid from your body, which if not replenished actively will result in catastrophic shut-down of the body via cramping, and in worse cases, heat stroke or death.

So I say to athletes: if you play more than three hours a day in the sun, plain water is not sufficient. You need ‘supercharged water’. This water has 6-8% of glucose or maltodextrin (avoid fructose), salts such as sodium to potassium and sometimes vitamin B complex and C as they are water soluble too.

A good hydration drink will have five times the amount of sodium to potassium, as that is how most players’ sweat glands release the salts. So a plain nimbu pani with sugar and table salt works for one hour of a player. But for those who trudge through muscle-wrenching, heat-soaked, sun-kissed practices, you need to upgrade your hydration to the next level.

Planned strategic hydration

When Manish Rawat, the 50 km Olympic walker, started preparing for the Rio Olympics six months in advance, we built hydration strategies that allowed him to push his body faster than before. We decided to focus on hyper-hydration, wherein he gulped down at least 750 ml of a customised sports drink 30 minutes prior to the start. This is one strategy any player can use to get ahead of the pack. By hyper-hydrating the player is in the contest longer and with more power kicking in by the 30th-45th minute, whilst others start the downward journey of dehydration. The other strategy we used was gels that were combined with plain water. What we did was to ensure that Manish carried 2-3 gels with him and used the water along the route. The gels were carefully selected to have the right carbohydrates and salts. These were strategies used in competition.

In practice, I taught Manish the art of hydration, where he sometimes pushed more custom solution into his belly. The extra fluid created discomfort initially, as it was like a huge tank of water in his stomach swaying from left to right. The churning of so much fluid in his stomach made him puke sometimes. But over 2-3 weeks of acclimatising to this forced strategic hydration, his stomach started accepting it and water began to get absorbed into his blood faster.

Over the months Manish began to understand that his sport required mental strength. So halfway at 25 kms his competitors were dying in their brains whilst his brain was just starting to get warmed up. If athletes can practise to hydrate from a young age, they will be able to mentally push themselves longer!

To many coaches in the country who do not allow their champs to drink water or hydrate, I say this practice has to change to one of active encouragement of planned strategic hydration breaks.

Caution: Consumption of fruit juices or beverages with high sugar content of 10% will damage an athlete’s performance during play. Therefore, never mistake an energy drink with high sugar content for a sports drink. A sports drink will always be a 6-8% carbohydrate (preferably glucose) solution.

The writer is an award-winning celebrity sports nutrition coach & Chief Nutritionist at Qua Nutrition Signature Clinics. He can be reached at

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