Most everyone—runner or not—knows the importance of staying hydrated. That doesn’t mean that we always do it. Nonetheless, hydration is particularly essential for runners, as dehydration can have terrible effects.
In this article, we’re going to discuss chronic dehydration and how it can impact you as a runner. By the end, you’ll be thinking about ways you can put this advice into practice so that you don’t ever fall into the dehydration category again.
Why It’s Important for Runners to Stay Hydrated
Just like a car needs gas, your body needs food and water for fuel and hydration. In order to run properly, you need to consume the ingredients that keep you moving forward.
This is especially important for runners. We can sweat a lot when our body’s core temperature heats up from running. As you sweat, you lose water (and salt) from your body. That loss needs to be replenished. If you fail to do so, you risk dehydration or worse, heat-related illnesses. Taken to an extreme, these can be fatal.
Additionally, if you aren’t hydrated, you’re forcing your heart, lungs, and other organs to work harder to sustain your pace. Too much added pressure can lead to organ damage if you don’t have enough hydration stores to draw on.
Signs That You May Be Chronically Dehydrated
All right, you might be saying. I get that being dehydrated, especially chronically dehydrated, is no good. So, how do I know if that’s me? Fortunately, there are a variety of good indicators that you might be chronically dehydrated.
Because your body is trying to use less water (it hasn’t been getting the fluid that it needs), you may experience symptoms like headache, increased fatigue and anxiety, or a lack of focus.
If these are worse than usual, think about your fluid intake over the last few days. If you can’t remember the last time you had glass of water, then there’s a good chance your symptoms point to chronic dehydration. Some symptoms are obvious: you’re thirsty. Others are more subtle: you might be so dehydrated you’ve stopped sweating.
Similarly, you might find yourself with digestive issues that can’t be explained by the spicy food you ate last night. Food cravings, dry skin or super oily skin leading to acne, or muscle weakness and/or cramps can all stem from dehydration.
These symptoms can occur for issues other than chronic dehydration. Ask yourself how frequent the symptoms have been. Symptoms for chronic dehydration tend to be ongoing and constant, so if they aren’t getting better, it could be dehydration.
If you go to your doctor, they will look for things like abnormal electrolyte levels, reduced kidney function, and a concentrated blood volume to determine if you’re suffering from dehydration.
Factors That Can Impact Chronic Dehydration
You may be more at risk for chronic dehydration depending on your personal circumstances. For example, your diet can greatly impact your hydration levels. If you love salty foods like bacon, pickles, and soy sauce, it can negatively impact hydration.
Similarly, if you have conditions like IBS or nonceliac gluten sensitivity, you might be more prone to chronic dehydration. Frequent diarrhea will leave you dehydrated.
Another example is consumption of diuretics like alcohol. If you drink a lot of alcohol, you might be a good candidate for chronic dehydration. Alcohol is a diuretic – a substance that causes your system to flush fluids through faster than usual.
One of the highest factors for chronic dehydration is climate and season. This is especially true living in warmer climates, particularly if you work or run outdoors a lot. With dry air, high altitude, or hot weather, your body is going to have to work harder to function. In short, you will need more fluids.
Finally, your physical activity will also impact your likelihood to suffer from chronic dehydration. If you typically go for long runs, your body needs more water. If you’re not giving it that, you’ll start to see impacts even when you’re not running.
Likewise, if you’re running faster, your body is going to heat up more. You sweat more during hard workouts, and need more fluids to stay at your peak. If you’re running faster than 8-minute miles, you’ll want to rehydrate more regularly.
How to Stay Hydrated Daily
If you haven’t been drinking the amount of water that you should regularly, get into the habit. The typical advice is to drink half your bodyweight in fluid ounces, meaning that you would drink 8 cups of water a day if you weigh about 130 pounds.
Make it easy on yourself to hydrate. Have two water bottles that give you the hydration you need and encourage yourself to finish those by the end of the day. Take a water break every time you take a bathroom break. remember, though, that your hydration needs will not be exactly the same day to day. Pay attention to your body and hydrate accordingly.
If you’re not sure if you’re staying hydrated, look at your urine. Your urine should be a light yellow. If it’s darker, drink some more water. You can also check hydration by pinching the skin on the back of your hand. Your skin should “snap” back into place if you’re hydrated, so drink up if it’s slow to go back into place.
Long Runs and High Heat
Especially for long distances and high heat, make sure that you’re properly hydrating. Long distances constitute any run over 45 minutes. And high heat for a runner can be remarkable low. Even at 70 or 75 degrees, it starts to feel hot for runners. If you’re someone who sweats a lot, you’ll especially want to make sure to hydrate.
Make sure that you’ve drunk 15-20 fluid ounces about two hours before your run to start off hydrated, drink roughly 5 fluid ounces every 15-20 minutes during your run, and drink 16-24 fluid ounces for every pound lost when running. If it’s especially hot outside or you’re going for a longer run, bring cold water. This will help cool your body down in addition to giving you the hydration that you need.
Be careful, though. Over-hydrating is definitely a thing, and a very dangerous thing at that. Too much fluid can dilute your blood and electrolytes, leading to hyponatremia, (dangerously low salt levels). In fact, in the history of organized marathons, there have been no known deaths from dehydration. But every year, there are a couple runners who succumb to the effects of fluid overconsumption. This takes some doing, and can be avoided simply by following the kind of hydration plan you use in training.
Finally, eat some fruit! It’s tasty, but it’s also a great source of water, electrolytes, and fiber. All of these are great things for runners.
How Long It Will Take to Reverse Chronic Dehydration
Once you first start to experience symptoms, it can take time to reverse. If you haven’t addressed it, your body will continue to suffer the negative effects of dehydration for hours and days after symptoms first appeared.
If you attempt to run again after noticing symptoms, it will be a tough workout. Your body will not have recovered like it needed to, and it will be even worse for this second run. It will continue to get worse if you don’t address it.
If your chronic dehydration leads to heat-stroke, however, it will take you days or weeks to recover. Depending on how severe it was, you may not even completely recover. Dr. Martha Pyron of Medicine in Motion notes that dehydration that leads to heat stroke can impact the future of your entire athletic career.
Similarly, chronic dehydration can lead to other health issues like kidney stones, intestinal failure, and hypertension. If these occur, it may take significantly more time for you to recover even after you’ve addressed your hydration issues.
How Being Properly Hydrated Will Impact Your Performance
One study found that runners who rehydrated over 100% of their sweat loss versus those who rehydrated 75% of sweat loss performed three percent better. That doesn’t seem like much, but it could be the difference between hitting your goal and just missing it. And not just in a race. When you’re properly recovered, you can train more effectively. Better training day in and day out leads to better performance in your goal race.
Coach Matt Fitzgerald notes in How Bad Do You Want It? that thirst can be one of the major reasons runners don’t push themselves hard at the end. You don’t want to have such limited water stores that your body starts to thirst. The key is to hydrate before that happens.
If you want to perform at peak capacity, your body needs to be hydrated physically and your mind needs to be mentally tough. If it’s trying to deal with feelings of thirst as your body is trying to run on less water, it’s not a great combination.
Thus, there’s no reason for you to be dehydrated. If it’s something that has been going on for a while, you’re probably chronically dehydrated. You should be able to get back to normal fairly quickly if you haven’t triggered any other underlying conditions.
If you think these symptoms could describe you, do a quick dehydration test. See how bad it is and then go get yourself a glass of water. Start making drinking water throughout the day as important a habit as brushing your teeth.