Hydration & Exercise Performance

The side effects of dehydration on different training styles and how to estimate your daily required water intake.

Sam Stephens

Updated July 2019

TLDR

To perform well in any fitness setting, we need to be properly hydrated.

As total body water levels drop due to heat and exercise, research shows that muscular strength/endurance, cardiovascular capacity, and recovery time can all be significantly hindered. Noticeable side effects begin at only 1% dehydration and often times increase in symptom severity as the percentage grows. This fluid deficit slows exercise progress across a variety of training styles over time due to chronic underperformance. 

Because water needs vary widely from person to person and there’s no set RDA, only broad and generalized recommendations can be made for adequate intake. However, by using the National Academy of Medicine’s estimated average requirement for water (125 fl oz/day for men and 91 fl oz/day for women) and the WUT method (monitoring weight/urine/thirst) developed by the Gatorade Sport Science Institute, we can easily and intuitively assess estimated hydration requirements on an individual basis.

For many exercise enthusiasts, the following daily hourly intake levels may be appropriate: 9-12 fl oz/hr for men and 6.5-9 fl oz/hr for women. During intense workouts, consuming 4-8 fl oz every 15 minutes is recommended. During post workout recovery, replace all fluids lost to sweat by consuming 16-20 fl oz of water for every pound lost

This self regulated approach to hydration can help us maintain proper hydration before, during, and after exercise, leading to optimal fitness performance.

High Quality H2O

While there are countless articles, debates, and anecdotal success stories discussing the benefits of different diets, there’s no substitute for proper hydration. It’s a necessity and high quality H2O is king without a competitor in sight. But despite its availability, many of us begin exercise sessions in a dehydrated state far too often

You may associate dehydration with the dramatic mental image of someone who’s lost in the desert, but much less drastic fluctuations in body water can significantly impact exercise performance. As little as 1% dehydration could be hindering your strength, weight loss, hypertrophy, and endurance training progress. Regardless of your training goals or fitness preferences, hydration is a key element to your success. 

In this guide we’ll look at the side effects of dehydration and I’ll give you a simple system to estimate your daily required water intake for optimal performance.

Defining Hydration

Before we dive into fitness things, let’s quickly cover the three different states of hydration – dehydration (hypohydration), euhydration, and hyperhydration.

Euhydration is the ideal state of body water and is achieved when our bodies contain normal water levels. ‘Normal’ here refers to the norms of individual hydration when an adequate amount of water is consumed. If you’re drinking at regular intervals all day and your urine is light yellow/clearish, you’re most likely euhydrated. As shown above, there aren’t set parameters that define exactly where this state is. Instead, euhydration fluctuates within a window of total body water and varies from person to person.

Dehydration occurs the moment we begin to lose water and shift away from a normal state of fluid retention. Sweating, breathing, and urinating all dehydrate the body but are not concerns until the rate of water loss exceeds intake for a sustained period of time. However, in the right conditions, that loss can add up fast. Technically, dehydration is the process of water loss and hypohydration is the measured state but we’re going to use the term ‘dehydration’ for all decreased water references because it’s familiar to most people.

Hyperhydration can be defined as a state of more total body water than what is held when euhydrated. Just like dehydration, there are fluctuations as we eat and drink during the day but our bodies are pretty good at regulating excess liquids and excreting them as waste. In most cases, hyperhydration only lasts a short while and is difficult to attain with normal drinking habits.

Nothing too complicated, right? Moving forward, when we discuss dehydration or hyperhydration they’re in reference to water changes relative to a euhydrated body weight. For example, 1% dehydration for a 200 lb guy would be a loss of 2 lbs of water.

General Side Effects of Dehydration

Many studies that investigate dehydration and physical performance work within a testing range of 1-4% water loss. Quite a few noticeable side effects begin to show at the 1% mark, increase in intensity as that percentage grows, are exacerbated by heat, and tend to impact untrained individuals more severely. For example, when looking at endurance training, research shows that for every percentage of body water lost our steady state heart rate increases by up to 6 beats per minute at a constant workload – that’s not good.

Other side effects of dehydration include:

  • Decreased lactate threshold
  • Decreased VO2max (2.9% per % lost*)
  • Decreased stroke volume
  • Decreased blood plasma volume
  • Decreased time to exhaustion
  • Increased rating of perceived exertion (RPE)
  • Increased resting heart rate
  • Increased steady state heart rate (up to 6 bpm per %)
  • Increased heart rate recovery time
  • Decreased protein synthesis
  • Increased body temperature/decreased thermoregulation
  • Decreased cognitive function
  • Decreased CNS function
  • Increased glycogen use/depletion rate
  • Decreased muscular strength (avg. of 5.5%)
  • Decreased muscular endurance (avg. of 8.3%)
  • Increased postural sway
  • Increased cortisol post exercise
  • Decreased testosterone & GH response post exercise

For a 150 lb person, 1% dehydration is roughly equal to losing 24 fl oz of water. With average sweat rates during exercise varying from 10-81 fl oz/hr, 1% is pretty easy to reach during an intense workout or from simply being moderately active during the day in a warm climate. As heat rises, resting and active sweat rates can rapidly increase resulting in multiple pounds of water lost. For some, completely replenishing a 4% deficit of water and electrolytes can take up to 24 hours.

Many of us would probably notice slight dehydration, but just like so many other aspects of fitness, results may vary. Because the performance impact of a 1% water loss on day to day activities might be relatively minor, beginning a workout session in an already weakened state is very possible. You could easily argue that the stealthy onset of slight (1%) dehydration during a normal workday and before a workout is more detrimental to exercise performance than an observable and noted water loss during a session that started euhydrated. Beginning a workout even slightly dehydrated can make returning to a euhydrated state within same the session incredibly difficult if not almost impossible for more profuse sweaters.

Body composition is another important factor to consider when assessing the effects of water loss. When comparing two individuals of the same sex, height, and weight who are both dehydrated by the same percentage, the leaner person will typically be impacted less by negative side effects. This is because fat has less water content than muscle – the more fat we have, the more our total body water capacity is decreased. If guy A (6 ft/200 lbs @ 10% body fat) and guy B (6 ft/200 lbs @ 30% body fat) both lose 1% of their body weight in sweat, guy B will have lost a higher percentage of his total body water because his overall water ‘tank’ is smaller. 

Super freaked out about drinking enough now? Don’t be. This all-star list of bodily failures isn’t meant to sensationalize the dangers of minor dehydration. Your heart won’t start beating out of your chest nor will your muscles stop working if you forget to drink one glass of water. But if your fluid intake is poor and you’re unaware of your hydration status, all of the compounding effects listed above can significantly impact performance and limit your progress across a variety of different training styles.

Dehydration & Hypertrophy/Strength

If simply acknowledging detrimental factors was enough to solve our fitness problems, we’d all be in great shape and super healthy. Unfortunately for most of us, casual awareness of a topic rarely translates into preventative or restorative action. It’s usually much easier to appreciate the significance of an issue when it applies directly to our own lives rather than when it’s presented with no personal context. So fitness enthusiasts, let’s look at how a few of the side effects listed earlier specifically affect some of the most popular training styles beginning with strength and hypertrophy.

One of the most important roles that water plays in our bodies is that of a transport medium for nutrients and waste. In a resistance exercise setting, the delivery and regulation of electrolytes (chloride, potassium, and sodium to name a few) to our muscles are critical for consistent and forceful contractions. As total body water levels drop from sweating, extracellular/intracellular fluids and blood salinity levels are reduced, resulting in a decreased ion carrying capacity/overall drop in electrolyte content. Without electrolytes to serve as conductors of electrical charges, the signals responsible for muscular contractions are not communicated clearly and often result in weakness or cramping. If our goals during resistance training are to maximize strength and hypertrophy development, high motor unit recruitment (which can be impaired by decreased CNS function) and mechanical loading throughout the duration of every set are key. If neurons and muscle fibers can’t communicate clearly, less weight (load and volume) will be moved and fewer gains will be made. 

Similar to how water helps transport nutrients to the muscle, it also works to carry waste away. While they might not be the most significant limiters of performance, lactate, ammonia, and hydrogen ions that accumulate in active muscles during high intensity exercise are believed to impair function to some degree. Under properly hydrated conditions, heavier loads still cause eventual fatigue due to metabolite build up but this point of failure typically occurs in a narrow and predictable rep range. However, with less water in the body to help efficiently carry these byproducts away, metabolic waste rapidly grows in concentration, potentially stopping you a few reps short of your normal capabilities. 

Another side effect worth noting is the increased rate of glycogen utilization. Under the influence of heat and dehydration, our bodies tend to use up this stored fuel source much faster than normal. While the effects may not be obvious at the beginning of the workout, if glycogen stores are depleted before your session is over, the remaining reps and sets will lack the fuel needed for optimal performance and proper inter-set recovery. In most cases, hypertrophy training will be more affected than strength/power based programs that focus on low (1-3) rep ranges. This one’s pretty simple – less fuel means heavy objects are moving for fewer reps.

And finally, dehydration induced hormonal responses might be robbing you of results despite your best efforts while in the gym. One 2008 study showed that exercising in a state of lowered body water (4.8%) decreased the testosterone response to resistance training when compared to a euhydrated control group. While 4.8% dehydration is a pretty significant reduction in total body water, it’s entirely possible in more intense training sessions and in certain climates. Another 2001 study reported that lower levels of growth hormone were observed while exercising in a dehydrated state. Along these same lines, cellular hydration is a major determinate of protein synthesis and muscle breakdown (muscle proteolysis). Because we grow outside of the gym and not exclusively during a workout, recovery is pretty important. However, in a dehydrated state, the formation of new proteins can be limited and the preservation of existing muscle mass can be impacted. To build new muscle and keep the tissue we have, we need water. 

Want to lift all the weights or fill out your clothes more? Stay hydrated.

Dehydration & Cardiovascular Endurance/Weight Loss

Many of the side effects that limit our resistance training capabilities also impair cardiovascular performance. However, while electrolyte balance, lactate removal, glycogen depletion, and undesirable hormonal changes are all significant factors to aerobic success, there are few others worth focusing on that are more specific to cardiovascular endurance and weight loss exercise.

The first heavy hitter worth mentioning involves general cardiac performance. An increased heart rate is associated with dehydration and studies show that as water levels drop, steady state heart rate at a constant intensity can increase by up to 6 bpm per percentage of dehydration. Based on this heart rate progression, dehydration of only 2% could put someone at least 10 bpm over their normal race/training pace, blurring the lines between days of higher intensity bouts and sessions intended for recovery. Accompanying this increased beat frequency are decreases in both total blood and stroke volume. With less blood in our bodies being circulated at slower rates, nutrient delivery and metabolic waste removal are both impacted. When you combine this trifecta of altered heart rate, blood volume, and stroke volume, it’s easy to see how your cardiovascular progress/performance can be limited.

*Similar to the changes noted in steady state heart rate, a 2010 meta-analysis of dehydration and endurance performance concluded that for every lost percentage of total body water above a threshold of 3.1%, VO2max decreased by 2.9%. If literally having less blood wasn’t bad enough for longer cardio sessions, we slowly lose the ability to take in oxygen as dehydration becomes more severe. Assuming we want to maximize fat oxidation as our primary energy pathway, a decrease in breathing efficiency makes this goal a bit more challenging. 

Within a weight loss and endurance exercise setting, we want to use as much stored body fat as possible in our sessions. Body fat is much more abundant than glucose/glycogen and can easily sustain us for longer durations of low to moderate intensity exercise. As our heart rate increases above a normal steady state level due to dehydration, our respiratory exchange ratio (RER) also increases and we shift from burning primarily fat to carbohydrates (glycogen/glucose). This increase in glycogen utilization means that despite the ample supply of body fat ready and waiting to fuel our runs, we are instead relying on a stored nutrient that will deplete much faster and produce higher quantities of metabolic waste, impairing function. Whether you’re training for peak cardiovascular performance or focused on dropping a few pounds, burning more fat with proper hydration is the goal.

The final side effects of dehydration worth noting here are impaired central nervous system (CNS) function, lowered cognitive ability, and increased RPE (rating of perceived exertion). For many of us, distance training is just as mentally taxing as it is physically exhausting. When combined, impaired CNS function and increased RPE can simultaneously inhibit our internal motivation and make us think that we’re working harder than we actually are. Less effort and a skewed perception of intensity aren’t made any better when decreased cognitive function is thrown into the mix. When aiming to lose weight, if our decision making ability and impulse control are hindered by dehydration, smart dietary choices become much more difficult. 

Looking to beat your last mile time or drop those last few pounds? Stay hydrated.

Hyperhydration & Exercise

There’s plenty of evidence to support hyperhydration as a performance enhancing technique in certain competitive settings but it’s not a method that I’m going to recommend. Although it’s rare outside of long distance races and requires quite a bit of mental effort to accomplish, extreme levels of hyperhydration can be very dangerous and even lead to death. 

For the vast majority of individuals active in some type of general fitness program or even competing in amateur endurance races, simply maintaining euhydration will be just fine.

Let’s now look at how to estimate our daily water intake. 

Assessing Water Intake For Daily Life

Now that you hopefully have a new appreciation for your water bottle, let’s make sure you’re using it correctly to stay hydrated both in and outside of the gym. Let’s first cover general hydration techniques for daily life.

Unfortunately, there is no standardized or universally accepted daily intake requirement for water, only generalized recommendations. For example, the National Academy of Medicine suggests that 3.7L/day (125 fl oz) for men and 2.7L/day (91 fl oz) for women will be adequate for most healthy adults but these numbers are only estimated average requirements (EAR) that meet the needs for 50% of the population. Because height, weight, body composition, activity levels, age, and sex vary from person to person, accurately assessing hydration requirements must be done on an individual basis for reliable accuracy. Luckily, it’s a pretty easy task and relatively intuitive to evaluate.

The great minds working at the Gatorade Sports Science Institute developed a really easy system for tracking and maintaining hydration in athletes known as the WUT method, with WUT representing Weight, Urine, and Thirst. When using WUT to assess hydration, the presence of two out of three symptoms suggests that dehydration is likely and meeting the criteria for all three makes dehydration almost certain. By paying attention to these three markers and using the National Academy of Medicine’s EAR as a rough guide for daily intake, we can significantly decrease our likelihood of accidentally creeping into a dehydrated state.

When assessing weight, we just want to make sure water losses are accounted for and restored. Weighing yourself each morning, before and after exercise, and before you go to bed can provide enough data points to assess fluid fluctuations. The goal here is to note what was lost both during the night and throughout your workout and then work to replace the deficit.

Urine should be monitored for color and frequency. If you are urinating 5-7+ times per day and each relief is clear to light yellow, you’re most likely in good shape. Be sure to pay attention to these two markers during your workouts or extended periods of time spent outdoors that result in noticeable sweating. 

Thirst is a symptom we want to minimize as much as possible because its presence is often a response to low water levels. Some studies and fitness professionals suggest that simply drinking to satisfy thirst can be adequate for most people. While this may be sufficient to supply the human body with enough water to function, I personally think it’s bad advice for anyone who participates in any form of exercise during their daily routine. If you’re reading this article you’re not looking to simply function and survive, you’re seeking performance. Some evidence shows that thirst is not a reliable indicator of hydration status, does not proportionally scale in intensity with changes in water levels, and when athletes drink only to satisfy thirst while in a dehydrated state, this fluid craving symptom will disappear long before euhydration is reached. Use the presence of thirst as a small alarm similar to decreases in water weight and dark urine.

While we can’t pin down exact daily hydration needs, we can now use WUT and the National Academy of Medicine EAR for water to establish some general intake ranges. Using a 12 hour day as our time frame and adding a 15% buffer to each end of the EAR volume, the following might be adequate for some people: 9-12 fl oz/hr for men and 6.5-9 fl oz/hr for women. 

Again, these numbers do not represent the exact water requirements for any one person but are estimated per hour ranges of intake and only serve to help make drinking frequency and volume easier to comprehend. Only by assessing your own personal needs will you be able to determine how much to drink each day but the WUT method should be able to help you modify these numbers without too much hassle, confusion, or additional mental effort.

Water Intake Before, During, & After Exercise

When assessing water needs pre, during, and post exercise, the same WUT markers are used here with just a few small added modifications to help prepare for and recover from a workout.

Before the session begins, most studies and professionals tend to suggest a specific hydration strategy of ingesting 5-10 mL/kg 2-4 hours prior to exercise. If you’re not quick with mental metric to imperial conversions (like me), don’t worry. This roughly equals the per hour EAR numbers covered earlier – 9-12 fl oz/hr for men and 6.5-9 fl oz/hr for women. Meaning, you most likely don’t need to stress out about a specific pre-exercise hydration strategy if your intake is adequate throughout the day. 

During the workout, be mindful of how much you’re sweating. The goal here is to maintain weight. Session intensity and sweat response will vary but an intake of 4-8 fl oz every 15 minutes is recommended as a replenishment strategy.

Replacing 100-125% of lost water weight is our top priority post workout from a hydration standpoint. If you lose 1 lb during a run, you’ll want to drink 1-1.25 lbs of water at a moderate pace over the course of an hour or two – don’t down it all at once. 16 fl oz of water is just about equal to one pound, so accurately restoring lost water weight only requires one simple conversion of pounds to fluid ounces – multiply your pounds lost by 16 to restore 100% of lost water or by 20 for 125%. This results in 16-20 fl oz of water for our 1 lb loss example. The more often you repeat a workout, the more accurately you can predict the expected water loss and then work to maintain it during future sessions. 

In competitive settings where activity will resume again soon after the first bout, replacing up to 150% of water lost is recommended.

As discussed earlier, electrolytes are critical for muscular performance. As we lose salt through perspiration, mild to severe forms of hyponatremia can occur (a condition where blood salt levels fall below ideal/safe levels) causing weakness, cramping, nausea, cognitive impairments, and other more serious side effects. If you are a heavy sweater and/or exercising in the heat, supplementing salt into your water may prove to be a beneficial extra step to help fight dehydration. By adding 0.5-0.7 g/L of salt to the water that you drink during and after exercise, you can attempt to mitigate salt losses and help replace them faster. For reference, 1/3 of a teaspoon of salt is enough for one gallon of water.

To summarize – begin the workout euhydrated, combat sweat loss by drinking 4-8 fl oz of water every 15 minutes during the session, and then replace all lost water once you’re done. Easy peasy.

Fluid Options

Just about any non-alcoholic drink can help with hydration, even coffee. However, consuming a gallon of orange juice every day might not be ideal for optimal health. Choose plain old, boring water for as much of your hydration intake as possible. During high intensity workouts of extended durations (>1 hour) or competitive events, sports drinks with added carbohydrates and electrolytes like Gatorade can be very helpful.

So many aspects of health and fitness require massive amounts of time/energy to see any real change – hydration isn’t one of them. Most of you will feel so much better and consistently perform at a higher level (mentally and physically) if you’ll just drink more water. Embrace the bathroom breaks, keep a bottle on you, and stay hydrated. Don’t miss out on the easiest performance enhancer available. 

Wrapping It Up

From strength training to yoga, distance running to HIIT, we need water to perform well and maximize our training results.

Despite all of the topics we’ve managed to cover, there are so many more benefits of hydration that were left out. If after reading this you’re slightly more aware of your daily water needs, understand that we all require unique hydration strategies that must be assessed individually, and have a newly acquired set of knowledge to address any potential dehydration issues, that’s awesome. Hopefully this piece was equally easy to comprehend and informative.

However, if you still have any questions about dehydration or would like to chat with me about assessing your water intake needs and exercise programming, please let me know. I’d love to work with you or help point you in the direction of a great registered dietitian.

Experiment by manipulating different variables. Find out what works best for you. Share what you discover. Have fun.

Cheers. 

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