The Most Essential Nutrient
It is difficult to define an “importance scale” for the nutrients your body needs, but water has got to be at the top. It takes part in virtually every chemical reaction in the body and therefore affects the body more dramatically than any other nutrient. In fact, the human body is composed of 60-70% water and if it gets down to less than 50%, you’re already dead. What does that mean for you? Drink LOTS of it. If you want to be healthy, then water must necessarily be part of your prescription.
The body is constantly using water in various ways such as perspiration, lubrication, and an assortment of essential chemical reactions, even when your activity level is minimal. Consequently, replacing it is a never-ending task. You should drink it throughout the day and drink plenty during exercise. There is no magic quantity of how much to drink each day (you may have heard 8-10 glasses), but drinking frequently is just as important as how much you drink. Thirty-two ounces of water twice a day is much less effective than 8 ounces 8 times per day.
Just as you eat several times daily, you should also drink several times daily. The reason for this is that when you drink water, the body uses what it needs and the rest is dumped out into your urine. So if you drink a lot all at once, within a few hours little of the water you drank is still in your system (except your bladder). However, if you drink frequently, you are constantly giving your body the hydration it needs.
The Biochemistry of Water
Below are two of the most common cycles for producing energy in your cells. In other words, pretty much every cell is doing one of these pretty much all the time. They can even make energy without oxygen, but not without water:
The Krebs Cycle
The first is of the most basic chemical reactions for producing energy in cells from the food you eat, called the Krebs Cycle. You may think it’s no big deal because water only appears twice. Yet in both cases it is absolutely essential to the next step and no other molecule can replace. If you have a background in chemistry you will understand the significance of the water in this reaction better, but know that this would not and could not happen without its presence.
Glycolysis is the chemical process that your cells use to produce energy when there is little or no oxygen around. It is really inefficient and if it were the only way to make energy, we would be dead at worst, and comatose at best, but it is still important, especially during exercise. Notice though how water appears again in what seems like an insignificant role, but it is essential to get from one step to the next and no substitute exists.
Getting Enough Water
Monitoring your hydration level is different than staying hydrated. This is much trickier, and depending on your personal situation may be difficult. Regardless of your circumstances, there are things you can do to stay hydrated. Each method will be discussed independently although ideally you should incorporate them all. Another note is that these techniques will vary with the season. In the summer, of course you will drink more than in the winter, especially if you are outside a lot.
Simple Hydration Strategies
The number one way to stay hydrated is to just drink all the time. A lot of people who work in office settings keep a bottle of water at their desks and drink it throughout the day. Your situation may render this more difficult. However, there are solutions to such cases. For example, if you work outside, say construction, buy a large container and bring it to work every day full of water. If you drive a lot, keep some in the car. Whatever the case, it is important to drink throughout the day, not just when you are thirsty. Remember, your body needs water more than food, and you eat at least a few times a day, so it makes sense that you should drink at least as often as you eat.
Another method that works well to stay hydrated (in addition to the above) is to drink after every bathroom use. Take a minimum of 4 “gulps” of water, but more if you are working, hot, or otherwise feel the need. The idea is that if you always drink after you use the bathroom, your body will have enough at the time and dump the excess in your bladder. So automatically your urine will be more likely to be clear (a fail-safe indicator of hydration). Since it also adds more water to your bladder, you will need to use the bathroom sooner, and when you finish you will drink some more. This automatically creates a situation in which you are always hydrated. As you implement this technique, you will learn how many “gulps” (or how much water) works best for you in different situations.
Another technique is to drink a sizeable amount of water first thing in the morning. Your body continuously loses some, even when you are not engaging in physical activities. After 6-9 hours of sleep you can lose a substantial amount, in fact. Consequently, consuming a big jolt of water first thing in the morning starts your body in the right direction. 6 “gulps” or more ought to do it. This is particularly important because even if you use the other techniques above, it may take some time to “catch up” from what you lose overnight.
Testing Your Hydration
Hydration, or the amount of water flowing through your body, can have a huge impact on your body’s function. When you are dehydrated your entire body is affected; muscles, organs, and your brain. So how do you tell if you have enough water in you? The best indicator is to check the color of your urine. If it is dark yellow, you are dehydrated; clear and you are in good shape. If you take a lot of B vitamins, often you will notice that your urine is yellow an hour or two later because the excess is sent to the bladder. Typically, it is a cloudier yellow, so be careful that you are not confusing this with dehydration.
Notice how you feel as well because feeling thirsty means you are already dehydrated to some degree. This is more subjective than the “pee test,” but the more you take note of how you feel when you are dehydrated and not, the better you will be able to tell where you are in terms of hydration. Pay attention and you will come to recognize how you feel when you have enough water (or not).
It isn’t super easy to stay hydrated all the time, important, but not easy; you have to make a conscious effort. Now apply that to exercise in which it is even more difficult and more essential to get enough water. Think about it. Just the everyday function of your body is affected by your hydration level. Logically then, it will be affected even more when you are exerting your body more than normal. How much you need to drink and how often during exercise are going to be a result of 4 factors:
Basketball (should) make you sweat more than croquet. You can of course play basketball with little effort, but generally speaking, it is difficult to really exert yourself much in croquet. The theme though is that you need more water when you are doing an exercise that requires greater physical output.
2) Intensity of exercise
The harder and faster you exercise, generating more sweat, the more you need to replace the lost water. Although some sports tend to be more exerting than others, how much you give is important too. For instance, if you are a lousy tennis player, you probably won’t exert yourself a lot because you won’t be doing much running and moving before the ball will be out of play. But if you are really good playing against someone of similar skill, you probably will.
3) Duration of exercise
It is pretty self-explanatory that you need more water the longer you exercise, no matter what you are doing. If you are going on a 5 mile run, for example, you will need to drink more than if you run 2 miles, regardless of the environment.
4)Temperature/humidity of environment
I once went running for 12 minutes in 110° weather. Upon finishing I was dizzy and my throat was sore. Both of these symptoms lasted for which I suffered for several days after. Needless to say I didn’t take water with me. I have also gone running for about an hour in 70° weather (with no water) and had no problem. Temperature and humidity can make a tremendous difference on your hydration needs, so prepare accordingly.
Water and Exercise
During a typical cardio workout that lasts 20 minutes or less, taking water with you is usually unnecessary. The exception of course is hot weather. Regardless, you should prepare yourself by drinking plenty (but not too much) during the 2 hours prior to your workout. This will ensure that you will be fully hydrated when you exercise. Whatever the case, it is really easy to get at least a little dehydrated following a cardio workout, so make sure to drink plenty as soon as you are done.
The same idea goes for strength training. You want to drink frequently to keep your level of hydration, and therefore performance, at its maximum. Some find it most convenient to drink in between exercises. So you do curls for a while and then take a drink before you begin bench press. After bench press, you take another drink. Continue like this throughout your workout so that you always have enough water in your system, but not so much that it bogs you down. You usually want to err on the side of more than less, but if you drink too much, it can interfere with your performance. Just imagine trying to slog through a 5 miler or do dead lifts with a stomach bursting with water!
In other activities such as basketball, soccer, tennis, etc., take a drink as often as you can. If it’s basketball, drink a little each time you come off the court. If it’s tennis, take a drink each time you switch sides. Frequent small drinks are always better than larger, more infrequent ones. The point here is to make sure you don’t defeat the purpose of exercising by not getting enough water! Exercise provides wonderful health benefits, but they are diminished in the presence of poor hydration. You just can’t perform at the same level when you are short on water.
Water When You Are Sick
Water may not seem like a big deal when you are sick because typically you are more lethargic, but it may be more of an issue than when you are well. If you are vomiting or have diarrhea this is even a bigger deal because you are losing a lot of water. Vomit and diarrhea both are mostly water, so you need to replace it and then some when you are sick. Since it participates in almost every process in your body, you must have a plentiful supply for optimal function; and that includes your immune system. When you have plenty, it is better able to battle illness. Oftentimes though, it is difficult to consume much of anything when you are sick. Eating very little is not a big deal because your body has energy reserves, but water diminishes very quickly. When you are ill, ideally you should drink about 3 times as muchas normal (if you can). You will experience fewer illnesses that are shorter and do not last as long as what those around you experience.