Ultimate Guide to Running Hydration

Before I started running regularly, my hydration plan consisted mostly of coffee, iced tea, and alcohol.  College years, most of us had them.  But one summer into training for my half-marathon plan, I quickly learned what happens when you don’t drink enough water.  And let me tell you friends, it is not pretty. 

Now that I’m training for my second ultramarathon, I’m once again logging insane (to me) miles.  And I’m doing it while having the soul sucked right out of my body by the Texas Sun, which I have come to believe is different than the Sun that other states get.  All this to say, I’ve gotten a little better at implementing a solid running hydration plan.  And since 75% of Americans are likely dehydrated, I thought it might be useful information to share.

Basics of Hydration

Before we dive head first into all the amazing products that can help you stay hydrated all summer long, let’s cover the basics. How much water should the average human be consuming on a daily basis? Well, according the Mayo Clinic, most women should aim for just under 3L a day, while most men should try to get in about 4L. And while you don’t have to drink only water (all water-based fluids count), water is generally thought of as the best source of hydration.

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If however, you are an active adult, chances are your hydration needs will increase.  Especially if you live in an oppressive climate that results in your sweating the moment you enter the great outdoors.  When we sweat, our body is using our internal water to regulate our temperatures, which can result in electrolyte imbalance and dehydration if we don’t work to restore what we have lost.

Which begs the question, how much water should an athlete be drinking?  Well, it depends.  There is a great equation that can help athletes calculate about how much is good enough.  Simply take your body weight in pounds and multiply that by .5.  This gives you the amount (in fluid ounces) that you should be aiming for on a mildly active day.  For a very active day, you should aim to take in your full weight.

So, for me, an athlete who weighs 130 pounds (I know, clutch your pearls, I disclosed my weight on the internet), I should try to drink somewhere between 65 and 130 fluid ounces a day, depending on my activity level.  Not too tricky!  Additionally, athletes should consider an electrolyte replacement like Nuun or Liquid IV on any day that they are physically active for more than one hour.

If you’re not interested in diligently measuring and tracking the amount of water you drink, I’m not going to judge you. Not to your face anyway. However, you should definitely understand the signs and symptoms of dehydration, so that you can make adjustments if you start to screw things up.

Consequences of Dehydration

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The face of dehyration

Like I mentioned earlier, the consequences of dehydration are not pretty.  They range from annoying to embarrassing and sometimes performance altering.  Here’s a few ways you can tell that you might want to guzzle just a little more.

  • Muscle Cramps – Have you ever been blessed with a mid-sleep Charlie Horse?  If you’ve woken up, screaming, trying to figure out what demonic entity has manifested and is trying to drag you to Hell through your calf muscles, you know they’re torture.  Any muscle cramps or twitching during or after workouts is a pretty sure sign that you’re dehydrated and are working with some electrolyte imbalance.  Good news?  You don’t need a priest to fix the issue.
  • GI Distress – Runners trots.  The runners flu.  All super cute terms for a very ugly situation.  That mid-run signal from your gut that you’ve got approximately 76 seconds to find a bathroom.  Dehydration can also cause vomiting, and make it difficult for your stomach to process fuel.  All around bad things.  If you’re regularly experiencing these kind of stomach ailments, your first course of action should be assessing your hydration.
  • Fatigue – Crazy things start to happen when your body isn’t getting enough water.  Your blood volume lowers, which prevents blood from reaching your brain and forces your heart to work harder.  All of this can make you feel, well, drained.  Your body has important work to do, especially when you’re exercising.  And if your body doesn’t have everything it needs, it will find ways to slow you down.
  • Poor Recovery – When we run, our muscles suffer microscopic trauma and tears.  What makes us stronger is how the body rebuilds itself after this trauma.  And in order to do so, it needs a good source of blood pumping to your muscles.  Which requires, you guessed it, water.  Chronic dehydration can kill your recovery, and make you feel like you’ve aged 10 years overnight.  Not quite the impact we want from our workouts.

Now that you know more than ever wanted to about dehydration, let’s talk about all the ways you can prevent it! Generally, I recommend a steady intake of water during runs for my coaching clients. A couple drinks of water every time your Garmin beeps to let you know you’ve run a mile is usually adequate. And if you’re feeling thirsty while you’re running, you may want to start in on the electrolyte replacements as well.

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Additionally, hydrating the day before a long or tough effort can go a long way to making sure your workout doesn’t leave you completely depleted.  If you know you’ve got a long run on Saturday, try getting in an extra liter of water on Friday.  And keep drinking regularly after hard workouts.  As unappealing as it may be, keep an eye on your pee for a few hours after workouts; once it returns to a light yellow color, you can slow down on the rehydration efforts.

What do you do if you like to run in an area that is remote or lacks water fountains?  Well, you’ve got to channel your inner camel, and carry it.  Don’t worry, hydration packs and products have come a long way in the last decade, and you don’t need to settle for something that sloshes and chafes you.  Here’s some of my favorite recommendations.

Running Hydration System Options

Handheld Bottles – These are a convenient option when you want to have some water, but not a whole lot. Most handheld bottle systems come designed to strap onto your hand so that you don’t actually have to work on holding your water. Very convenient! They’re easily refillable, and obviously never far out of reach.

I love this Nathan SpeedDraw because it carries 18oz, has an insulated bottle, and the pocket attached to the handstrap is big enough for my iPhone.  Recently, I also started using the Nathan ExoDraw, which is a lighter option that has a softflask that collapses as you drain it.  While I haven’t personally used one, I’ve also heard great things about

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Hydration Vests – For times where you are likely to need more than a little water, there are tons of hydration vest options to chose from.  These carrying systems fit like a normal vest, and usually have either a couple of bottles on the front, or a larger bladder resevoir on the back.  They have pockets for your other running gear and fuel, and a vest that fits you properly will feel like a small extension of yourself, rather than a backpack.  I have a few recommendations, but I also highly recommend popping into a local running store to try on a few options.

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I’ve worn and loved my Nathan Vaporhowe 4L for years, and have had no issues with relying on the bottle system. It can fit up to 2 20oz bottles on the front, and actually has a back pocket that can hold up to a 1.5L bladder on the back. The t-shirt fit and all the pockets kept me pretty happy. But when Nathan had a sale recently, I decided to give the newer Nathan Vaporhowe 2 12L a shot. It’s a similar vest with a slightly upgraded pocket system, and it came with a 2L bladder that I was a little nervous about. But honestly, the bladder is insulated, does not slosh, and is not tricky to fill, so I’ve loved every run with it.

Another highly recommended options are the Salomon Agile vest, which features an impressive amount of front storage.  It’s a lightweight model, which is great for more minimalist runners.

Hydration Belts – Now look, I know what you’re thinking.  Because I too have seen the waistbelt bottle carrying system of old.  And honestly, most older models work, but they chafe, slosh, and aren’t exactly light weight.  However, there are a few running companies that have really stepped up the game.

The Nathan Triangle is an innovative upgrade, which is designed to allow a large bottle to sit on the small of your back at an angle that keeps the bottle out of the way and prevents chaffing.  Salomon Sensibelt has a similar model that allows one-hand access, and keeps water out of the way.  But my favorite option has to be the Nathan Vaporkrar waist pack, which is designed like a traditional fueling belt, but with an 18oz soft flask water bottle that fits snuggly against your body.  The soft flask can eliminate chaffing, and doesn’t look or feel as bulky as a traditional bottle.  It also has room for snacks!

All of these options can work well, but you may have to try a few out before settling on the perfect hydration system for you. Hopefully, though, you can avoid some of those uncomfortable side effects of dehydration! If you feel like you could use some guidance when it comes to your running hydration strategies, feel free to reach out via my Contact Me page.

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