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Solving the Hydration Riddle: Lesson Repeated Until I Learn

Posted by on Jun 21, 2012 | 11 Comments

Ah, hydration and ultramarathons. It used to be an issue that caused exactly zero problems. When I lived in the Midwest, I never unintentionally became dehydrated in a run. Ever.

I would occasionally do a “dehydration run” where I would purposely consume too little water so I could learn what the physical symptoms felt like. These runs were always done on a small loop with easy access to water, so the danger was low. I didn’t have much of a need for them, though, because it was never an issue in races.

My previous hydration strategy depended on temperatures. If temps were below about 65°, I carried one water bottle and refilled at each aid station. If temps were above about 65°, I carried two. If I were sweating excessively, I’d grab a cup or two of water or sports drink at the aid station after filling the bottles. I was drinking a specific amount of water over a given amount of time and would consume a little more based on sweat rate. I largely ignored thirst because it would cause me to under-drink early in a race and over-drink late in a race.

The strategy worked flawlessly. If anything, I had a slight tendency to over-drink. I’d lose some time peeing too often, but it didn’t affect my performance.

Then we started running in arid environments. On shorter runs, there were no issues. I didn’t run far enough to hit a point of dehydration. It did become a major issue on long runs. The first time I experienced this was the second day of the Across the Years 72 hour race. I was drinking a few sips of water every lap (one mile). I wasn’t sweating at all due to the lack of humidity and wasn’t thirsty. I hit a serious low that appeared to be glycogen depletion… until I started cramping up. At that point, I realized it was dehydration and went about correcting the problem.

The same situation hit on a dumb-ass adventure run with Jesse Scott from Boulder, CO to Nederland, CO. The trip was supposed to be an out-and-back, but we had very little water. The same scenario hit- no sweating, no thirst until dehydration symptoms hit. his run was actually a little dangerous as we didn’t have access to water. I survived, though.

The third time occurred this last weekend at the Bighorn 100, also in a hot, arid environment. At about mile 20, I started experiencing the symptoms of an impending glycogen-depletion low despite eating enough. It was confused by the feelings until I started cramping, then immediately identified the problem. Unfortunately it took another 20 miles before I was able to consume enough to rehydrate enough to begin running. The same issue hit the second day. Overall, I spent over two hours sitting in aid stations drinking. I also added at least three or four hours to my finish time by walking when I could have been running had I not been dehydrated. My 32+ hour finish could have easily been in the 26-28 hour range.

The problem: How do I determine how much to drink in hot, dry environments? For me, thirst is not a reliable indicator. In fact, I can’t “feel” the symptoms of dehydration until they start affecting performance. Sweat, which was my primary measure, evaporates immediately in the arid air.

The two possible solutions could be to:

  1. Drink enough until I have to urinate approximately every 90-120 minutes, then use urine color as a measure of hydration.
  2. Try to calculate my actual hydration needs in arid environments, which would entail weighing myself before and after a run, then calculating how much water would be required to replace the weight.

The first is pretty easy. The second would require more work. Both should be relatively effective.

Considering three of my five planned major races are run in pretty hot, dry environments, this is one problem I have to solve soon.

Any other tips from those of you that live in the hot, dry climates?



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  1. John Blyth
    June 30, 2012

    My strategy in the two Ironman races I’ve done so far, was to drink whenever I had any thought about water, even if it was a thought about the sea or a waterfall or something. It seemed to work. The hot race had me consume something like 12 bottles of Gatorade on the bike leg vs. 2 bottles, and my own concoction on the cooler day. I assume my subconscious notices things before I become consciously aware of them, and look for that, rather than overt symptoms.
    But, like trying to imagine the horse without the white tail…

  2. Chadisbarefoot
    June 22, 2012

    I have to admit, Jason, that when I read about your misadventures with Jesse in the mountains it scared me a bit. You need to get your hydration stuff sorted out STAT, Brother. That crap can kill ya! And then I’d have to find someone else’s blog to lurk about on.

    Glad you’re already hard at work on it. Be safe, Duder.

  3. NickW
    June 21, 2012

    Jason, I’m not sure for running as I don’t run those distances, so take this with a grain of salt. I was an endurance cyclist for a while and when I was riding in extremely hot temps I did what we in the Army called “forced hydration”. I just didn’t do it the extreme way we did in the Army. Every ten to fifteen minutes I would force myself to drink water, whether I felt thirsty or not. Like you, I didn’t have a problem with the electrolytes, my custom sports drink took care of that, but I had a problem with hydration. This was the only system that seemed to work for me.

  4. Brian G
    June 21, 2012

    In hot weather I always add into my 24 oz bottles a couple pinches of plain table salt, a small capsule of potassium chelate (you can buy that at any health-food store) and some freshly squeezed lemon and lime. As a hydration and electrolyte drink it works great.

    As for keeping hydrated, I just have a regular schedule of taking some big gulps every half hour no matter what. Slight over-hydration never hurt anyone beyond the time spent peeing but even small amounts of dehydration can hinder performance.

  5. Andy
    June 21, 2012

    I think the common theme here is electrolyte replenishment. Gels aren’t enough, and neither are sports drinks, or any real combination thereof, if they were to have enough salt, they’d simply be unpalatable. I’ve had great successes with S! caps, (take one every hour, 2 an hour if it’s unreasonably hot) and have heard great things about other electrolyte tabs as well. The bottom line is that no matter how much water you consume, if your salt levels are off, your body can’t absorb it, and it will all have been for naught.

  6. Rob Y
    June 21, 2012

    Can you clarify what you mean by “hydration”? Are we talking water only, electrolyte drink, water and salt, water and salt pills etc…?

    There is a crucial difference. The more you sweat the more you need to replenish salt. Potassium and sodium need to be taken in, with the emphasis on sodium. So how you accomplish that can be variable. My personal supplement of choice is First Endurance EFS. The stuff simply rocks (this after trying just about everything available). Alternatively I always carry a baggie of pure sea salt to take finger fulls when I’m feeling really spacey or think I need a stronger kick of salt. Nothing better. There are also many types of electrolyte pills if you prefer to drink water only. Lot’s of options. But you need to take in salt. The electrolytes from gels aren’t enough. I tend to operate on the drink too little side versus drinking too much. I’d rather NOT deal with a sloshy/upset stomach. A sloshy stomach typically means I’m taking too much in so I just back off for a while, perhaps just taking in tiny sips but no food. It’s a delicate balance and one that varies widely from run to run, race to race. The important thing is to be adaptable and recognize what is going on and how to change course.

    • Jason
      June 21, 2012

      I should have mentioned this in the original post- electrolytes are never an issue. When needed, I prefer to use Succeed but will use whatever is available. My strategy with electrolytes is to take one capsule per two bottles of sports drink and/or water. If I develop salt deposits from sweating, I back off a bit. If I get the “sloshy” stomach, I increase sodium consumption. I’ve never had a problem with it regardless of conditions.

      As far as hydration, I’m looking for ideas to recognize when I’m not drinking enough in hot, dry climates. Specifically, how can I manage this during 100s?

      Thirst doesn’t work for me. Urine frequency varies too much with sweat rate, and the evaporation of the arid climate throws me off. Urine color is usually too late of an indicator. Weight can work, but I’d need crew access to weigh myself during the race. That’s not always a possibility.

      My best solution may be just to drink a lot more. Right now, I use urine frequency and color as an indicator of over-drinkning, but I’m not sure if that will be reliable in the arid climates. My training runs are too short to really test it.

      • Rob Y
        June 22, 2012

        I think that’s your best option. That and experience. I just keep trying to drink a lot and I still believe, for me, I can go by “feeling of thirst” quite a bit. But I like the idea of taking regular sips from my pack or bottle etc… A long time ago I used to set my watch on a continual count-down loop to go off every 5 or ten minutes (can’t remember now) everytime it went off I’d take a good sip. Eventually I got annoyed with the watch alarm (so did the people I happened to be running with! 😉 ) but found I could do it on my own now. So that’s pretty much what I try to do. At an aid stop I’ll top off my bottle/pack and try to drink what they have provided there as well.

        I learned a long time ago from my Outward Bound backpacking expeditions that if you’re not drinking you should be peeing and vice versa. So true in my experience. The key is that with all the fluid drinking that you’re getting enough salts in either by the drink itself or with salt pill supplements (pills, pure salt etc…) otherwise drinking a lot w/o salt replacement will lead you to big trouble!

        Personally I haven’t had good luck with salt pills as often they’ll just sit, undissolved in my stomach, trust me I’ve thrown up enough of them to know! 🙂 So pure salt or EFS has been my main go to’s for salt replacement. Heck, just grab a bunch of those little salt packets at fast food places; they work well too and they’re free!

        Unfortunately, all of this is highly variable on climate and the person so just experiment. But I’d err on the side of peeing too much but making sure you’re getting a good mix of water/salt in tank. Just back off if you get the sloshy or aching stomach.

        I mostly just go by feel these days and have so for a very long time…

  7. Dave
    June 21, 2012

    Definitely try weighing yourself before and after a run. For me, it was an eye opener to see how much weight I’d lose – around 5 pounds per hour in hot weather. Without hydrating properly, I’d get in trouble pretty quickly on a long run. Everyone sweats at a different rate, so you can’t rely on anyone else’s rule-of-thumb to find your own fluid replenishment needs.

    I also really like the Nathan HPL-020 hydration pack for long/hot runs. It carries 70oz of fluid and is very comfortable (much more than hand-helds IMHO). I used for a 12-hour race last year in 90 degree temperatures, and experienced no chafing or shoulder/back aching whatsoever. Yes, it’s more weight than a handheld, but that’s never bothered me.

    Finally, I like using Nuun (or similar) tablets as they provide electrolytes without the cloying sweetness of a Gatorade. Thus, it continues to be refreshing hours into a long run. Plus, by using the tabs you are less likely to suffer hyponatremia than if you drink water alone.

  8. Kenneth D
    June 21, 2012

    Like you Jason, I tend to over-drink. I run with hadnhelds, because if I don’t have in my hand, I won’t remember to drink enough.

    I basically just a couple of hits off of the handhelds every mile. Pretty much, just two swallows worth of fluid each mile.

    If I start to get “sloshy stomach”, I continue to take the fluid every mile, I just slosh it around in my mouth and spit it out.

    This way, I stay in the habit of drinking on a schedule, and sticking to it.

    Also, I generally run in hot and humid conditions (North and South Texas), so every time I reach an aid station, I will pour whatever is left in my bottles over my head and refill at the aid station.

  9. Derek
    June 21, 2012

    how are you handling salt/electrolytes? my issue is that sloshing/bloated stomach where the water just doesn’t seem to be getting absorbed or not draining, and then takes quite a bit of walking to clear it up…