Fuel The Fire – Hydration Dehydration And Cramping

March 10, 2015


If you are 50 or older and participated in athletics, you probably remember salt tablets. Coaches would distribute them liberally to athletes prior to extreme heat practices or games. Well-intentioned coaches handed out a few tablets prior to practice or a game, but it wasn’t unusual for some of us to choke down ten. The thinking of the day was that salt would help us retain water, keep us hydrated, and full of the important electrolyte, sodium. To add insult to injury, water intake was often limited to “toughen up” the boys. It’s a miracle that more of us didn’t die.

The science of hydrating the body to improve performance has made significant strides. We now know that salt tablets can worsen dehydration and impair performance – they increase potassium losses, irritate the stomach, and can cause vomiting! Well, that little bit of info would have been nice to know!

In this article, I’ll attempt to simplify and convey the most recent research concerning hydration. I’ll also discuss cramping, following what I personally witnessed in my 30 years of coaching collegiate athletes. Some of this info might seem like a no-brainer, but you wouldn’t believe what I’ve seen.

The Fundamentals of Hydration

It’s important that you understand the fundamentals of hydration so that you not only improve physical performance and 

your enjoyment of the activity, but also limit your exposure to the negative consequences of dehydration. Hydration is critical to function properly, especially during preparation for an event. Losing just 2%-3% of bodyweight can seriously impair physical performance and make it difficult for the body to cope with continued activity.

Dehydration leads to early physical fatigue and overheating which, in turn is followed closely by emotional and mental fatigue – and then it’s game over. During exercise, heart rate and cardiac output increase as the body tries to maintain blood supply to active muscles, the skin (for heat loss), and vital organs. The decrease in blood volume caused by dehydration puts a greater strain on the heart to keep up, making it difficult to maintain performance.

We all sweat at different rates, so it’s important to learn how to monitor your own dehydration status. Also, many individuals lose more salt in their sweat than others. “Salty sweaters” often have noticeable salt stains on clothing after workouts and a higher risk of developing cramps. A couple other points that need to be made address the overweight and medicated individual: 1) Anyone with a high body-fat percentage can become significantly dehydrated and over-heat faster than athletes with lower body-fat percentages; 2) anyone taking medications is at higher risk for dehydration, since medications often mess with body temperature and fluid regulation.

You might be surprised to learn that a significant number of dehydration casualties take place in winter! Don’t be fooled into thinking you don’t sweat in cold weather. As the body works or shivers, we can lose fluids rapidly. This creates a dehydrated state that, among other problems, accelerates the body’s sensitivity to cold. You should be acutely aware of the warning signs of fluid and electrolyte imbalances. These include but are not limited to: extreme thirst, fatigue, irritability, nausea, headache, mental confusion, dizziness, muscle cramping, and red or flushed face.

Unlike athletics, where bodyweight monitoring can be conveniently available, Wilderness Athletes are usually nowhere near the scales needed to assess rapid weight loss. This makes it more important to stay on top of your fluid intake.


Before, Before, During, After

Much of the research today indicates that plain water is best for staying hydrated, unless activities last longer than 30-45 minutes. That conclusion assumes blood sugar and glycogen stores are in good shape from the start – an assumption I never count on. I strongly believe in a “before, before, during and after” approach that utilizes the best hydration product ever designed and targeted specifically for outdoor athletes – Wilderness Athlete Hydrate & Recover.

What does “before, before, during and after” mean? Well, the first “before” means to pre-hydrate the night before activity. This is critical for achieving maximal performance the next day and might keep you from cramping and experiencing what feels like a pit bull chomping on your calf or hamstring in the middle of the night. You ever have one of those? It’s the kind where you can’t shake it and two minutes into that wrestling match you starting getting spiritual. “Lord, if you make this stop, I’ll never again…” I’ve been there. For those with a history of cramping, one to two quarts of fluid is recommended before calling it a night. Will you have to get up in the middle of the night and do your business? Probably, but hey, deal with it!

The second “before” refers to comfortably hydrating immediately prior to activity. As a coach, I preached, “Always begin practice or competition in a hydrated state.” No need to over-hydrate or there is a good chance you’ll toss it. The amount you drink is individual, but for most people I recommend 8-12 oz., depending on the intensity level of the activity.

Third, well, “during” means during! Again, no need to over-hydrate, unless you’re experiencing moderate-intensity activity and may not have a chance to drink for quite a while (like making a long push in between canyons and all you have is a skimpy water bota).

Finally, there’s “after”. Try to consume enough fluid that your thirst is satisfied, but without drinking so much that it bloats you and diminishes your appetite. This can easily happen and leads to serious problems, as inadequate food intake can spell disaster for the next day’s activities.

*A side note on cramping: Take a few minutes to stretch your hamstrings and calves before bed and you’ll eliminate 50% of the cramps. Cramps generally result from: 1) a mineral deficiency not associated with sodium and potassium (take your WA Multi-Vitamin with you); 2) dehydration resulting from inadequate fluid intake and depleted stores of sodium and potassium (necessary for proper muscle firing); and 3) fatigued muscles that are still “activated” and need to be stretched to allow them to relax and begin recovery.

Donʼt kid yourself; dehydration is no joke. If you’ve ever experienced it at its worst, you can attest to the miserable feeling that comes with it. Be smart and stay hydrated for a much safer and more enjoyable outdoor experience. Go Further Stronger ~ Coach P


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