We’ve all heard the “rules” of hydration: Drink until your urine is clear; hydrate before you get thirsty. But what if those guidelines aren’t quite right? A new statement released this week by a panel of 17 experts suggests that some of these myths might actually put people at risk of overhydration, or hyponatremia.
“Hyponatremia is what happens when the blood becomes very diluted,” says Dr. James Winger, a sports medicine doctor at Loyola University Medical Center in Chicago. “In the setting of athletics, people take in more fluid than the body can get rid of, usually in the name of preserving hydration.” By drinking too much H20, the sodium in the body becomes diluted, leading to swelling in the cells.
Though it can happen to anyone, hyponatremia tends to be more common among endurance athletes. According to Winger, one study of ultramarathoners found that over half of finishers showed signs of hyponatremia. And another study of Boston Marathon finishers showed that 13 percent suffered from the condition by the time they finished.
Hyponatremia, which can be fatal, can be tough to spot. “Symptoms can be very vague and not unlike symptoms one might experience after running a race or performing any athletic event [including] fatigue, even confusion or exhaustion,” Winger says. However, he points out that it’s also 100 percent preventable — as long as you don’t fall prey to these common myths about hydration.
4 Old School Myths About Hydration
Myth #1: Feeling thirsty means you’re already dehydrated.
Contrary to popular belief, thirst is a good thing, Winger says. In fact, the panel’s report, published in the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine, advises athletes to drink only when thirsty to prevent overhydration.
“Our advice has been to drink when you’re thirsty — that can be a plan, and it’s the easiest plan there could be.”
When you feel thirsty, your body has actually already begun to implement its own water conserving measures. “People think it’s too late; you’re already dehydrated. But it’s not too late for anything,” Winger says, noting that running into serious problems related to dehydration is harder than most people think. Drinking only when you feel the need — instead of forcing yourself to stop at every water station on the course — will keep you sufficiently hydrated, while ensuring you don’t overdo it.
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Myth #2: Your performance will suffer if you’re not 100% hydrated.
Afraid you’ll hit the wall if you don’t load up on H2O? Winger notes that it’s natural to get a little dehydrated during athletic events. “There’s growing evidence that mild to moderate dehydration has no effect on performance in many different sporting endeavors,” Winger notes. “We need to look at dehydration as a natural part of exercise, not necessarily something to prevent.” Most athletes can safely lose up to three percent of their bodyweight via dehydration before it impacts performance, Winger says. Drinking when your thirsty will help prevent you from entering the danger zone.
Myth #3: You should drink until your urine is clear.
We’ll make this brief: You can stop staring into the toilet bowl. “In general, urine color is a pretty poor marker of specific or exact urine concentration,” Winger says. “If you’re trying to dilute your urine, you’re probably putting yourself into an overhydrated state.”
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Myth #4: Muscle cramps are a sign of dehydration.
When a Charley horse hits, you might be tempted to chug water to ease the pain. However, research shows that muscle cramps don’t have much to do with dehydration. “What’s been demonstrated is that it has a lot more to do with the fatigued state of the muscle, and muscles that are more fatigued are more likely to cramp,” Winger says. “Fatigued states often happen when you’re hot and dehydrated too, so there’s an there overlap that leads to confusion.” While ads for your favorite sports drink might tell you to start swigging when you’re feeling depleted, recent studies tells us otherwise, Winger says.
If you’ve gone into every long run with a strict hydration plan, Winger is basically giving you permission to relax. “Our advice has been to drink when you’re thirsty — that can be a plan, and it’s the easiest plan there could be,” he says. “When you’re done feeling thirsty, stop drinking. It sounds silly, but that’s the simplicity of it and the beauty behind it. We don’t need any sorts of numbers and measurements and weights to tell us how to stay healthy during exercise.”