Nowadays, health and fitness can be an expensive pastime; gym membership, appropriate gym attire and a steady supply of supplements can cost a small fortune. One item yet to be included on this list, which often overlooked and forgotten, is that of a water bottle and the contents within.

Water and other sporting supplements, capable of providing you with adequate hydration throughout a sporting session or performance, can be the difference between you achieving a personal best and winning first place or simply falling short at the final hurdle. This might seem a little extreme, but hydration during physical activity really is that important – and the resultant effects really are that black and white.

Current research into the area of exercise and hydration has concluded that dehydration equal to or exceeding a 2% loss of euhydrated body weight is enough to significantly impact upon a physical activity in a negative way. Furthermore, previous investigations into this popular topic of interest have also revealed that even when fluids are made readily available throughout a sporting session or performance, a significant percentage of athletes will still finish their exercise discipline above the 2% dehydration threshold (Sharp, 2006).

This strange phenomenon is occurring throughout the sporting world, regardless of the chosen sport or level of expertise. Chances are, you’ve undertaken a sporting session or performance whilst in a state of dehydration at some stage. With this in mind, the purpose of this article is to contemplate the effects of dehydration upon an individual’s ability to successfully undertake physical activity.

The Importance Of Hydration

Although the importance of adequate hydration is often reiterated to athletes and fluids are made readily available for consumption, as the above research highlights, athletes are often caught short and find themselves performing in varying states of dehydration.

The reasons for this are not complex. Greenleaf (1992) identified two reasons for the cause of voluntary dehydration: firstly, the sweat loss during physical activity can be extremely varied and sometimes large; and secondly, the desire to consume fluids during physical activity and an individual’s ability to stomach them without discomfort sometimes falls below that of sweat loss, therefore creating an overall negative balance.

Unfortunately, there is no one size fits all approach when it comes to exercise and adequate hydration. It is often a trial and error approach which can ultimately be affected by variables such as weather conditions, exercise type, exercise intensity and various internal mechanisms relating to your own unique body. Consequently, fluid intake and its patterns must be continuously altered and manipulated to ensure dehydration is avoided.

The Effects Of Dehydration

Dehydration has the ability to bring about various physiological alterations which, in turn, can directly impact upon the sporting performance of an athlete.

During a research investigation undertaken by Coyle (1998), in which continuous cycling was utilised to achieve a state of progressive dehydration, the following variables were all negatively impacted upon: heart rate, temperature, perceived exertion ratings, white blood volume, stroke volume, cardiac output and skin blood flow. Progressive dehydration levels reached 4.9% of the athlete’s body mass during the cycling exercise; as the level of dehydration continued to rise, so to did the overall impact upon the individual.

Cheuvront et al. (2003) echoed such findings within their research investigation. Results suggested that dehydration brought about premature fatigue, enhanced thermoregulatory stress and cardiovascular strain and negatively impacted upon muscle metabolism and the central nervous system function. Each and every physiological variable affected negatively impacted upon the individual athlete and their ability to achieve peak performances.

The research highlighted above provides an insight into the significant effect dehydration can have upon various physiological functions. This is by no means a conclusive list, however. Despite this, it’s easy to appreciate how dehydration completely alters the body’s internal mechanisms compared to that of a hydrated state. Ultimately, these changes produce a knock-on effect during sporting performances and an athlete’s ability to function maximally.

Physiological Alterations

With all this in mind, this article will now contemplate how these physiological alterations can bring about significant changes within a sporting performance:

In 1995, Below et al. undertook a research investigation aptly titled: ‘Fluid and carbohydrate ingestion independently improve performance during 1h of intense exercise’. During this research study, athletes were asked to cycle for 50 minutes at a predetermined level of 85% V02 max. This was then immediately followed by a performance task, in which the aim was to complete it as quickly as possible. Four trials were undertaken with all extraneous variables controlled throughout. The only manipulated factor between trials was that of water intake.

During one of the trials, dehydration was allowed to reach levels of up to 2% of the athlete’s body mass. Performance levels indicated that in this dehydrated state, individuals were impaired for the performance task, on an average of 6.5%. Unsurprisingly, results indicated that better hydration levels throughout the investigation positively correlated with lower temperature, heart rate and feelings of perceived exertion – all factors which would have ultimately affected work rates during the performance task.

Final Word

The purpose of this article was to raise awareness regarding the importance of adequate hydration during exercise. Often, this variable is overlooked or omitted and athletes will unknowingly find themselves in a state of dehydration throughout a sporting session or performance. Ultimately, this can bring about numerous physiological alterations which in turn can significantly impact upon your ability to perform maximally.

The following is advocated and has been referred to throughout the article: “dehydration of more than 2% of body mass can compromise physiological function and impair exercise performance capacity. Greater levels of dehydration further exacerbate the negative responses” (Casa et al, 2005). Although this rings true and has been supported through extensive research, it is important to note that even below the 2% threshold, physical performance levels might still be negatively affected.

There’s no one size fits all solution to avoiding dehydration during exercise, so if you’re looking for a starting point from which to gage your unique requirements then previous research often advocates consuming 1 litre of fluid for every hour of exercise you undertake (American College Of Sports Medicine, 2007). Remember, however, this is only an estimation and should be manipulated according to the numerous variables highlighted above.

The important take home message is that in order to perform maximally, you and your body need to be in a state of hydration. Whether this be achieved through water alone or an alternative sporting supplement, ensure that next time you enter the gym or other sporting establishment, your water bottle is right by your side.

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