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Plain old water is the best sports drink

Hydration is not just about gulping down water during play. Its intake before, during and post training plays a crucial part. The human body can process about a litre an hour

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A cloud of haze constricted the city and a spike in humidity consorted with unseasonably warm weather as the 40,000-odd marathoners pressed on. By the end, more than 3,200 of them needed medical assistance, with a majority of the runners suffering from dehydration and muscle cramps.

That was Mumbai, this January. So, as the Indian summer gets scorching, a crucial component of sports nutrition begins to gain increasing importance. Hydration is central to the performance of an athlete. With water accounting for nearly 60% of your body weight, it would make obvious sense that it’s a critical element for elite athletic performance.

But few coaches and trainers emphasise that even a 2% loss of body fluid can impair performance while increasing cardiac stress. Fewer realise that hydration is not just about gulping down water during play. Instead, its intake before, during and post training plays a crucial part.

Water regulates body temperature, lubricates the joints, helps transport nutrients and maintains overall health. The human body, though, with variances for different sizes, can process about a litre an hour during hot conditions. Usually, absorption rates are lesser and research has proven that even 300 ml can take as long as 75-120 minutes.

So, unless the body is pre-hydrated and continuously replenished, it will falter during extreme exercise under hot and humid conditions with the loss possibly as high as three litres an hour. Then, average sweat rate varies between 0.5 and 1.5 litres during hard exercise. Therefore, unless an athlete has a precise fluid plan tweaked as per his or her needs, the possibility of dehydration during summer months is very high.

The easiest way to monitor fluid loss is to use a weighing scale. If an athlete is weighed before and after a training session, the amount of weight loss is a simple measure of the amount of water that needs to be consumed. Then, some sweat saltier than others. A sweaty black t-shirt will show salt stains upon drying and that in turn will denote the amount of sodium —the main salt the body loses during perspiration — that the athlete needs to take.

The sports drink industry has been responsible for proliferation of several supposed aids to athletic performance. Claims of most are rather exaggerated. From the same pressure group comes the misguided adage of drinking as much as possible even before you get thirsty and that their preparations are more ideal than plain water.

While most coaches agree that by the time you feel thirsty your body is already feeling the effects of dehydration, few understand that an overhydrated athlete is just as much susceptible to underperformance with the enhanced risk of exercise-associated hyponatremia: a condition of dilution of sodium content leading to complications. There are a few good books on the subject, including the seminal Waterlogged by Dr Tim Noakes.

Water remains the best hydration that most athletes need. For intense exercise beyond an hour, isotonic drinks help. You don’t need a fancy, expensive fluid to maintain sodium levels because of dehydration — a handful of salted peanuts after exercise may work just as well (I prefer the Gujarati ones).

Coconut water, which has even been used as IV fluid by desperate doctors in remote locations, is one of the best sports drinks out there, followed closely by salted nimbu paani. The key, of course, is staying hydrated and the easiest way to monitor that is not by following fancy fluid plans but rather to just check the colour of your pee.

The moment it gets darker, you will know you are in trouble.

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