Improve athletic performance with optimal hydration and nutrition

Nov. 15, 2021
Proper hydration and nutrition for competitive athletes can boost performance. Photo: Getty Images.

Optimal hydration and nutrition is essential for everybody’s health.

But it’s especially critical for competitive athletes, according to Dr. Jack Spittler, a Family Medicine and Sports Medicine specialist based at the UCHealth A.F. Williams Family Medicine Clinic – Central Park.

That’s because intense physical activity depletes water and electrolytes through perspiration and burns a large number of stored calories. To stay competitive, athletes need to consume considerably more fluids and food than most people.

But that’s easier said than done. “A lot of people have different philosophies about hydration and nutrition,” Spittler said.

When it comes to hydration, for example, some experts advise athletes to rely on thirst. Others recommend drinking a certain amount of fluid at certain time intervals, whether or not the athlete is thirsty.

Nutritional advice is also wide-ranging, conflicting and often controversial. Some experts favor a high-protein Atkins diet while others say a high-fat keto diet is best.

Debate also rages about the risks and benefits of dietary supplements.

No one-size-fits-all hydration and nutrition strategy

Instead of recommending a specific formula, Spittler prefers a more laissez-faire approach toward hydration and nutrition.

“Everyone’s body is so different that there’s not a one-size-fits-all strategy,” he said. “It’s best to have a personalized plan and stick with it.”

For most athletes, that usually involves a goodly amount of trial and error. “If you experiment with hydration and nutrition during your training, and you find the right balance, it’s going to set you up for success,” Spittler said.

“I wish there was a better way, such as advising people to drink eight ounces of an electrolyte beverage every 30 minutes,” he added. “But there are so many variables that it’s tough to recommend any hard and fast numbers.”

But one thing is certain, he said: “Changing your routine before big events is not going to help your performance. It can actually make it worse.”

A classic example is a usually diet-savvy athlete who travels to a distant stadium and fuels up on greasy concession-stand food just before an important game.

That will almost certainly set up the athlete for failure, Spittler said.

Another poor choice is to engage in intense physical activity when you’re already feeling parched.

“You don’t want to be thirsty before starting exercise,” Spittler said. “Otherwise, you may be playing catch-up, which can impair your performance.”

How to check your hydration status

A good way to determine your hydration status is to check the color of your urine. If it’s pale yellow, you’re probably adequately hydrated. If it’s dark yellow or brown, that’s a sign of moderate or even severe dehydration.

On the flip side, colorless urine suggests that you may be drinking so much water that you’re overhydrated. “If your pee is clear and you need to go to the bathroom every 30 minutes, that’s a sign that you need to back off on the beverages,” Spittler said.

Over-hydration is often seen in marathon runners who chug water at every water station along their 26-mile route. “You might think you’re doing the right thing by drinking a lot of water,” he said. “But you can actually dilute sodium, potassium and other electrolytes in your blood down to dangerous levels.”

Over-hydration can be serious

In rare cases, over-hydration can be fatal. More commonly, it leads to cramping, light-headedness and other problems that impair performance.

During competitions, Spittler recommends sticking with the same hydration strategy that proved effective during training workouts. Drinking higher or lower amounts of water than usual is likely to throw athletes off their stride.

Although everyone perspires during heavy exercise, they all perspire differently. Some athletes – so-called “salty sweaters” — perspire in a way that can drastically affect their electrolytes.

“When you’ve finished exercising and can see a visible layer of salt on your skin and clothes, that means you’re losing a lot more electrolytes,” Spittler said.

Salty sweaters should experiment with different beverages and mixes that contain high levels of electrolytes to find one that improves their hydration and performance, he said.

Drink water before, during and after exercise

Although everyone should drink some water before, during, and after exercise, it’s usually unnecessary to consume sports drinks containing electrolytes and carbohydrates if the exercise session is an hour or less.

For longer exercise sessions, you should consider adding more electrolytes and sugar to your drinks, Spittler said.

Dr. Jack Spittler talks about hydration and nutrition for competitive athletes.
Dr. Jack Spittler, a UCHealth Family Medicine and Sports Medicine specialist, discusses hydration and nutrition for competitive athletes.

Be aware, however, that classic sports drinks such as Gatorade and Powerade may contain more sugar than you need. “There are a lot of alternatives now that contain electrolytes and either have no sugar or very low amounts of sugar,” he said. “That actually may be better for your overall health.”

Word of caution: don’t confuse sports drinks with “energy” drinks such as Red Bull, which are loaded with caffeine and other stimulants.

No matter which sports drink you try, note how it affects your body and athletic performance. When the weather turns hot and humid, you’ll probably need to up your intake to compensate for increased perspiration.

Also keep in mind that you can become dehydrated from vigorous exercise in cold and dry weather.

For example, a day of downhill or cross-country skiing in the Colorado mountains can drastically deplete your water stores and electrolytes. “When you ski, you’re exerting yourself and sweating and losing fluids, but you may not realize it,” Spittler said.

Dehydration can magnify the effects of high altitude and altitude sickness, which can impair your performance and increase the risk of accidents. So even in sub-freezing temperatures, it’s important to stay hydrated on the slopes, he said.

Talk to your doctor about hydration and nutrition

If you’re new to vigorous exercise, it’s important to ask your doctor about appropriate hydration, especially if you have chronic conditions such as heart or kidney disease. Since many prescription medications can affect your electrolyte levels, you may need to adjust your fluid intake to compensate.

When it comes to nutrition, expert advice is even more variable than advice on hydration, Spittler said.

“Again, experiment with certain foods and see what works well with your body,” he said. “But in general, a well-balanced diet with lean proteins and complex carbohydrates is a good strategy for athletes. That’s going to give you sustained energy.”

Healthy sources of protein include chicken, turkey, fish, lean red meats, peanut butter, whole eggs, nuts, legumes, Greek yogurt, milk, and string cheese.

Healthy sources of complex carbohydrates include whole-grain bread, crackers, and pasta, oatmeal and other high-fiber non-sugary cereals, fruit, starchy vegetables (sweet/white potatoes, squash), non-starchy vegetables (broccoli, leafy greens), quinoa, and brown or wild rice.

Healthy fats are also an important component of a well-balanced diet. These include avocados, peanut butter, nuts and seeds, olive or canola oil, and coconut oil.

Talk to your doctor if you’re considering a newer diet that maximizes one certain macronutrient – such as protein, carbohydrates or fat – while minimizing the others.

Because vigorous exercise breaks down muscle tissue, many experts advise consuming some lean protein within 20-60 minutes after a training session or competition.

“Within that time window, you’re giving your body some of the amino acids it needs to rebuild muscle,” Spittler said.

His favorite post-exercise recovery potion is an old stand-by: chocolate milk. He prefers a brand that contains no lactose, which allows the product to contain more milk protein.

Carb loading doesn’t improve althetic performance

Spittler advises against carb loading, a traditional strategy still employed by many athletes. “We used to do that when I was in high school,” he said. “We’d have this massive pasta dinner the night before a game.”

Carb loading is unlikely to improve performance, but it is likely to cause an upset stomach. Like an abrupt change in a hydration strategy, an abrupt change in diet is almost always counter-productive,

“Don’t do something really outside the box,” he said. “If you have a strategy that works well during practices, mimic that the night before and the day of a competition.”

In recent decades, the marketplace has been flooded with dietary supplements that promise to improve athletic performance. Because such products aren’t regulated by the FDA and can contain hidden and potentially hazardous ingredients, Spittler advises his patients to steer clear.

“Be very careful about dietary supplements,” he said.

At Spittler’s clinic, a pharmacy team can assess dietary supplements that patients would like to try.

“So working with a physician or pharmacist can be a strategy for athletes who are unsure if a dietary supplement is safe for them,” he said.

Many athletes rely on caffeine to improve their performance. In small amounts, caffeine can help athletes, especially endurance athletes, to maintain their focus, Spittler said.

But high amounts of caffeine can cause electrolyte imbalances, especially in younger athletes. It also can lead to cardiac issues such as heart palpitations.

One or two cups of coffee in the morning is unlikely to cause problems. But if that’s followed by an energy drink or two prior to a competition, the amount of caffeine in your system can quickly increase to dangerous levels.

“Some of these energy drinks have 200 milligrams or more of caffeine,” Spittler said. “Before you know it, those two Monster energy drinks you had before exercise can cause heart palpitations, dizziness, and a lot of other issues. Too much caffeine before exercise also can increase the risk of dehydration.”

About the author

Rick Ansorge is a freelance health writer based in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He has produced online content for multiple online publications. He has won numerous awards for newspaper articles about health and fitness.

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