Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Everything I knew about hydrating was wrong!

I remember my first real endurance event, the STP (Seattle to Portland Bicycle Classic). It is a 200+ mile bike ride that people do over one or two days in the summer. The first time I did the STP I went to several training events, and I remember being told: “drink before you get thirsty, because by the time you’re thirsty it’s too late”. I took this to heart, since the person who was doing the training must clearly be an “expert”.

A few years ago while trying to complete a guided one day summit attempt of the 10,781 foot Mount Baker on skis I completely ran out of steam short of the summit. No matter how much water I drank I couldn’t quench my thirst. We only made it to the crater, several hundred vertical feet of the summit. Later my guide told me that my problem was likely that my body needed electrolytes, and that this could be done easily by using something like Nuun tablets. After that I started adding Nuun to my water for all my endurance events.

Someone I know told me about becoming dehydrated during a marathon and urinating blood. Stop at every single water stop they told me, you do NOT want to become dehydrated. This furthered my belief that I should be drinking constantly during physical activity.

Recently while trying to complete the 93 miles Wonderland Trail that circumnavigates Mount Rainier in three days I wore a 3 Liter Camel Bak bladder in my backpack. I never let it get below 1 liter, and my water always had several Nuun tablets in it.

Hydration and electrolytes have always been central to my physical activities. I’ve preached the importance of hydration and electrolytes to anyone who would listen. It was common knowledge, right? Then I read this article from Adventure Journal and it was like a slap across my face. According to the study, everything I thought I knew is wrong. There are a lot of “experts” out there when it comes to endurance activities, but expertise comes from personal experience, not science.

The article references a recent study by Dr James Winger of Loyola University Medical Center. The study looked at hydration and the performance of marathon runners. What the study found is that we are drinking way too much water. You should only be drinking when you get thirsty. Drinking too much water can be very dangerous; "there have been 12 documented and 8 suspected runners' deaths from hyponatremia". The Adventure Journal article also mentions that Dr Winger says it's unwise to take salt tablets to replace electrolytes. Electrolytes are taken away from the body by drinking too much water, and the only way they are going to be replaced artificially is through an intake of “highly concentrated IV fluids (not normal IV fluids)”.

The first question that popped into my head when reading the article is, "why do I feel so much better after I drink a sports drink?", the article answered that one too. You get that good feeling from the sports drink because you’re "being washed by endorphins when you stop an exercise".

When I find something that completely upsets my belief system citing some “study” but not linking to the actual study I need to do some more research. So I checked the web, and this story is of course all over the place: The Chicago Sun-Times, Science Daily, etc, etc.

I will definitely be looking for more on this study, and asking around anywhere I can get more information on this. Please read the Adventure Journal article as well as the original study yourself, then let me know what you think, will this change your behavior when it comes to hydrating? I've got a marathon in less than 2 weeks and I'm not sure how this news will effect my behavior.

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