Written by Andy Blow
Hydration is a hot topic every summer, when the warmer weather leads to increases in sweat rates which can make it tough to stay hydrated.
However, because we train indoors more when it gets cooler, wear more layers when we do venture outside and we’re generally exercising in colder, drier air, hydrating properly is almost as difficult during winter. So, it’s important to maintain good hydration practices at this time of year too.
Here are some tips to help you stay hydrated and get the most out of your training sessions this winter…
Before your session
We often do shorter but more intensive sessions when training indoors in the winter. So, showing up to them adequately hydrated is crucial if you want to perform at your best and recover quickly afterwards.
Your sweat losses can be high if you’re working hard and it’s no good just aiming to drink lots when you’re on the turbo or treadmill, if you do that then you’re likely to be fighting a losing battle.
Instead, work on your hydration status in those last few hours before your workout by sipping 500 – 750ml (16-25oz) water, or a light electrolyte drink, so that your body has time to process and absorb what it needs and eliminate any excess.
Any fluid you take in immediately before the session is likely to simply sit in your stomach and do you very little good, especially if you’re doing something intense, like interval work (where most of the blood flow is directly away from your gut and to the working muscles), reducing the chance of it being absorbed quickly further.
During your session
Because most indoor sessions are shorter, you shouldn’t need to drink much at all during the workout (assuming you started well hydrated in the first place!). This is true for anything up to 60 minutes, maybe more in some cases.
It’s certainly a good idea to have a bottle of water available, and to drink to thirst, but your body is going to have a hard time processing lots of fluid when you are working hard anyway.
If you’re outside doing longer sessions in cold, dry air, you might find that you benefit from drinking a stronger electrolyte drink than normal, as there’s a tendency for your body to want to pee more in the cold (a well documented but not fully understood phenomenon called ‘Cold Diuresis’). You may also still be sweating quite a lot even in those colder temperatures if you’re wearing extra layers, so holding on to more of the fluids you take in is important.
Adding more electrolytes (mainly sodium) to your water helps you to absorb and retain fluids more effectively. This helps maintain your blood sodium levels, which is crucial to maintaining performance.
After your session
Recovery from any training session can be improved by restoring fluid balance faster. Once again, adding some sodium to your post session drinks can help with this.
Sodium helps the body replace what was lost in sweat and also increase the percentage of water that is actually absorbed.
One thing to remember is that your body can only take in a certain amount of fluid, usually somewhere between about 400ml and 1000ml per hour (approximately 15 to 36oz), so drinking any more than that is probably futile.
Pace your rehydration out over a few hours post session, using thirst and urine colour/volume as the main indicators of when you are back to where you should be. Ideally your pee should be a relatively pale, straw like colour, not dark (indicating possible dehydration) or totally clear (probably indicating over-hydration).
Don’t drink too much!
In the past, when it came to hydration, ‘more is better’ was the most common advice. It’s actually more of a balancing act.
Your body has developed fantastic mechanisms to help you maintain a fluid/electrolyte balance. As long as you give it roughly the right amount of each, it will generally do the rest.
Things tend to go wrong when people override natural instincts and become convinced of the need to just drink lots and lots regardless, because dehydration is the feared consequence of not doing so.
At first if you drink too much fluid your body will do a good job of getting rid of the excess, simply by making you pee more. Keep doing so and you’ll begin to dilute the level of electrolytes in your blood, as well as put on unnecessary water weight, neither of which is good for your health or performance.
That’s why learning to listen to your body and to read the early signs of thirst is actually the best way to keep your fluid levels balanced.
- Don’t neglect hydration in the winter, especially if large amounts of your training is done indoors or in cold, dry conditions where fluid loss can be surprisingly high.
- Turn up as hydrated as possible. But don’t just drink loads right before you get started.
- Listen to your body (and keep an eye on urine colour) to monitor your hydration level. Dark pee means you probably need to increase fluid intake. If it’s completely clear and you are peeing a lot, you’re probably drinking too much, which can be as bad than not drinking enough.
- Drink to thirst rather than setting arbitrary targets for how much you think you ‘should’ be consuming.
- Add electrolytes (sodium is the key one) to drinks if sessions are particularly long, arduous or if you have an especially high sweat rate.
Andy Blow has a few top 10 Ironman and 70.3 finishes and an Xterra World Age Group title to his name. He founded Precision Hydration to help athletes solve their hydration issues, take their free online Sweat Test to get started. He has a degree in Sport and Exercise Science and was once the Team Sports Scientist for Benetton and Renault F1 teams.