If there’s one thing that your body needs most in order to function and stay healthy, it’s water. About 60% of the human body is made up of water, so it’s essential for muscles and cells to work optimally and do their jobs. And of course, when your body is well hydrated, energized, and balanced, you’ll also feel healthier and more productive too.
“Because the body contains more water than any other element, the importance of hydration is massive for just about every body system,” Trista Best, MPH, RD, LD, says.
That’s why you might notice that when you’re dehydrated, you’re also likely more fatigued, irritable, and mentally exhausted than usual. (And all of these side effects can hinder your workout performance or cause you to ditch your training session entirely.)
Plus, any kind of exercise that gets your heart rate up and works your muscles (meaning that it’s of a relatively high intensity level or that you’re exercising in a hot environment), will increase sweat production. Unfortunately — despite sweating’s benefits — there’s a trade off.
Sweat production is great because it cools off your body so that you’re more comfortable and can better maintain stamina and energy levels (plus it keeps you safe from overheating and passing out). However, your body also loses its valuable water supply in the process, since that’s what you’re sweating out.
So, for those rigorous HIIT interval workouts and 6-mile runs in hot, sticky weather, you really need to keep an eye on fluid intake — not just during the workout, but also throughout the entire day so that your body has a good amount to begin with and can sufficiently replenish afterward.
What Is the Importance of Hydration for Athletes?
How to Hydrate With Both Water and Electrolytes
The first and easiest way to maximize hydration is by increasing your water intake throughout the day.
“You should be drinking roughly half of your body weight in ounces of water and hydrating fluid daily and regularly,” Best says.
It turns out that you need to drink more than just water, though. The next step is to add more foods and beverages that contain electrolytes into your diet and training schedule, especially for recovery fuel after a training session.
Electrolytes stabilize hydration levels in general, so make sure you’re getting enough throughout the day. (And don’t ever skimp on them after exercising, as they speed up muscle recovery and provide fuel for those tired, sore muscles to repair damaged tissue and prevent overuse injuries.
And if you sweat heavily, you may need more electrolytes to replenish depleted muscle stores.
“For those that lose a significant amount of electrolytes through sweat, it's a good idea to replenish those with a simple post-workout electrolyte drink or an activity that causes excessive sweat,” Best advises.
Electrolytes include chloride, magnesium, calcium, sodium, and potassium. Make sure you’re consuming a variety of each of these so that you’re well hydrated all day long, and stash some snacks in your gym bag for immediate recovery and a boost in hydration and energy levels.
Choose a low-sugar sports drink or give your water an upgrade with an electrolyte supplement and powder, which will increase your water consumption and replenish nutrients to leave a smaller electrolyte deficit post-workout.
If you’re exercising for over an hour (or are doing high-intensity work where you’re dripping in sweat), keep an electrolyte gel or supplement — or even a packet of tablet salt — in your pocket for when you need some quick and light mid-workout fuel.
Other easy sources include coconut water, pickles, peanut and almond butter, bananas, spinach and kale, olives, pumpkin seeds, avocado, and dairy foods (with cottage cheese and yogurt as two top sources in particular). Keep these foods at home for meals and snacks throughout the day—especially for meal prepping recovery snacks and for hydrating after completing a workout.
The Benefits of Hydration (and How It Affects Your Body)
Even just a hint of dehydration can be damaging to your body, training, and health.
“Studies have found that even a mild form of dehydration (1-3%) can impair brain function, impact mood, energy, concentration, and memory, and increase feelings of anxiety and headaches,” Best says.
What’s more, you might also experience dry and flaky skin, dry mouth, and chapped lips (all of which indicate insufficient hydration levels). You might even notice a decrease in happiness and overall feelings of wellbeing.
“You may experience a hormonal imbalance in the brain — particularly in relation to the mood-boosting hormones serotonin and dopamine — where not taking in enough water might cause mood swings and irritability,” Best explains.
You might also experience decreased cognitive thinking and brain fog.
“The brain needs an ample amount of water to function at optimal capacity, and when the body becomes dehydrated it prioritizes water and electrolytes to other areas first,” Best says.
So, you may lack focus and mental stamina, as a result. Plus, making gains in workout performance and muscle building isn’t feasible without proper hydration.
“Poor hydration leads to inadequate electrolytes in the body, which are needed to prevent muscle fatigue," Best says. "If they’re not replenished, performance decreases and you may experience cramps or get injured. Finally, mild dehydration can easily be confused as hunger by accident."
If that's the case, drink water first. But if you’re still hungry, grab a light, healthy snack with high water content, which increases fluid intake further. Examples include sliced watermelon, a vegetable crudité containing bell peppers, cucumbers, and a small apple. You’ll quench your thirst and settle your stomach for only a few calories, without going overboard.
Tips for Preventing Dehydration
Simply put, if you're feeling thirsty, you're already dehydrated and past the mild state. That’s why catching it early by detecting warning signs and symptoms will prevent it from getting worse.
To combat potential dehydration, keep water or a hydrating, electrolyte-containing fluid with you at all times, preferably in a reusable water bottle so you can refill it periodically and monitor your overall fluid intake better.
“Some athletes set goals for themselves throughout the day on how much water they want to consume, and they may even use special water bottles with indicators of hydration levels,” Best says.
Keep that large, reusable water bottle on hand so that it’s accessible no matter where you are — at your desk, at the grocery store, or heading to the gym for a training session. Fill it up several times throughout the day, or pick a magic number of refills to adhere to where you’re drinking enough water to meet your body’s needs.
And finally, make sure that your bottle is near and directly in sight, and make it a habit to drink and replenish anytime you’re leaving one location with water access and heading outdoors. If you’re struggling to remember, set alert notifications in your phone or jot down “hydration appointments” in your calendar, as reminders to drink and replenish every hour or so.