In summary:

  • Relentless marketing and poor studies have for years led us to believe that we need to be flooding our bodies with fluids before and after exercise
  • Professor Tim Noakes, a leading sports scientist effectively dispels the hydration myth in his book
  • Humans are incredibly designed with a highly tuned hydration system allowing us to run large distances or perform for long periods even in harsh environments as evidence by the San peoples of Africa who run for hours in the searing desert heat with little to no fluid intake

I recently stumbled on a fascinating book, namely “Waterlogged; the serious problem of overhydration” by Professor Tim Noakes, a research scientist in the Division of Exercise Science and Sports Medicine at the University of Cape Town. Prof Noakes effectively dissects the pseudoscience of sports drinks, citing loads of research involving endurance athletes.

For around 20 years, especially since the inception of the Internet, we have been led to believe by sports and nutrition scientists that we need to be relentlessly flooding our systems with fluids during and after exercise to prevent suboptimal performance or collapsing with exhaustion due to overheating and/or lack of electrolytes.

However according to the science of independent researchers (not industry sponsored), it is for the most part a myth, and Tim Noakes in his book digs deep into the science of hydration including all the facets of the topic in an attempt to get to the true facts. Fortunately for people buying these drinks and unfortunately for the drinks manufacturers, the findings in this book were an eye opener to say the least.

Dehydration – not the be all and end all

In the good old days, athletes such as runners and cyclists were advised against excess water intake over concern that it would be deleterious to their performance. In fact, decades ago it was perceived as a weakness if you took on fluids as an endurance athlete.

But surely the runners of today are much better than the runners of years past with all the advancements in science etc? While it may seem intuitively as a yes, the real science as articulated in Prof Noakes’s book discusses that runners of the pre-1970s era had no reported issues of dehydration and associated symptoms e.g., passing out or collapsing with exhaustion and heat stroke. The runners of today are not superior to the runners of past eras, and Noakes refers to the fact that when frequent hydration was advised from 1976 onwards, there were no associated increases or improvements in world marathon records.

In fact, since the “drink before thirst” advice was introduced, the general performance of athletes or runners has actually deteriorated and Noakes explains in his book, the best performing athletes in the world are usually those that shed more weight during exercise, have the least thirst and run the quickest when they are significantly dehydrated, and this is possibly because of the associated performance enhancing weight loss. Noakes goes on to say that studies repeatedly have demonstrated that the most dehydrated runners, measured as a loss in body weight percentage run the quickest, and some of these studies have been conducted by researchers who had preconceived expectations of different outcomes or in other words bias.

What about electrolytes?

Some people might be thinking, surely a high performance athlete e.g. marathon runner or triathlete would require supplemental electrolytes such as sodium and potassium to avoid muscle cramping and the associated drop in performance levels? Once again the intuitive answer would seem like yes, but unfortunately it’s not true according to the independent science.

The body regulates plasma sodium levels very tightly, and when the diet contains ample salt as in the case of Western diets, the body gets rid of this excess via sweat glands as part of maintaining this intricate balance. The converse is also true when you consume less salt, in that the body holds more of it as part of this finely tuned system.

Further studies have consistently confirmed that endurance athletes do not experience significant fluctuations in their plasma sodium levels or at least not enough to justify flooding the systems with sports drinks, electrolyte powders and tablet products.

What about muscle cramping?

This is another age-old myth propped up by junk science or vested interests; there is no unbiased science connecting electrolyte depletion with muscle cramping. Muscle cramping is a result of the muscle being worked beyond its capacity, causing the overproduction of lactic acid.

Prof Noakes nicely concludes his findings on sports drinks industry and salt deficiencies by saying that the industry bases its claims on the assumption that a person cannot obtain enough salt from their diet, thus creating the need for supplementation using sports drinks, powders or tablets containing electrolytes in order to prevent muscle cramping, heat exhaustion and salt deficiencies during long distance exercise. Unfortunately, these assumptions conveniently leave out the fact that the body is a highly tuned, intelligent organism that regulates key processes in the body automatically including electrolyte concentrations in plasma blood, and there is an overwhelming wealth of research to back it up.

Do sports drinks have any benefit?

Apparently the answer is yes; however it’s not enough to justify the expense.

Carbohydrates do technically improve performance, but it’s not the energy provision, but rather the brain effects from ingesting carbs, where the brain perceives a lower level of effort at any running speed or in other words allows the body to run faster at the same level of psychological effort. However, this is grasping at straws; the book has confirmed that there is no need to buy overpriced and overhyped sports drink products for performance.

If you feel the need to have some carbs during exercise, have half a banana with Skin+Beyond in any of the recipe ideas under the Recipes page on the website.

In summary human beings possess an intricately tuned system for fluid and electrolyte balance and losing heat via sweat glands allowing us to run large distances or perform for long periods even in harsh environments; hence the reason the San peoples in Africa can run in the Kalahari Desert for hours with little water or salt.

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