While hydration has proven itself to be a vital element in staying happy and healthy on the trail, it cannot be dismissed as a mechanical necessity – hydration is also heavily reliant on personal preference and taste. While many diehard outdoorsmen will accept nothing besides plain, pure water, many explorers are keen on flavored sports drinks and enhanced performance beverages. Is there a right choice?
In my first interview segment with hydration expert John Seifert, we discussed the biological intricacies that influence our body’s reaction to water intake, and ways to promote hydration while outdoors. During this second installment of our chat, we take a look at how everything from boosting the effectiveness of plain water with solutes to keeping kids pleased with favored flavors during outdoor excursions.
Looking back at our original discussion about the ways our bodies handle liquids, what can we add to plain water to help better promote hydration and retention?
The medical research and sports science research is pretty clear. The first thing that really matters is adding solutes to the fluid – particle matter like salt, proteins, and potassium. Medical research has been pretty clear that if you add salt to plain water, you get better absorption from the gut, and better retention by the body.
Back in the 1960s, when Gatorade was first brought into the market, they knew that if you added salt and carbohydrates to water, you get increased absorption and retention. Over the last decade or so, both clinical and exercise research has shown that the salt and carbohydrate combination plus small amounts of protein is even better. Much of this is influenced by the numbers of receptors and carriers in the small intestine. That’s what proteins and carbohydrates do, they allow for greater activation of these transports.
Let me put this in easier terms – do you like pizza?
I love pizza, who doesn’t?
When you eat a salty pizza, what happens about 20 minutes after you eat it? You get thirsty.
I know that salt helps you retain water, but it also makes you thirsty, right?
You bet. In the sports drinks we’ve been discussing, they put a small amount of salt in for a couple of reasons. First, it helps water movement across the gut. If you move salt from one side of the intestine to the other, eventually, water will follow because it wants to dilute the salt. That’s a great thing, because now you can speed the movement of water across the gut, thereby increasing the absorption of water by the gut. Second, salt acts as a flavor enhancer. If you like something, you’ll drink more. This encourages voluntary rehydration.
What would you say is the best fluid for hydration on the trail? Is it water? Enhanced sports drinks?
I can’t give you a solid answer for that, it’s entirely up to the individual. Think of a food you don’t like. You go out to dinner with friends, and they order for everyone, choosing something you really don’t like. Are you going to eat it? Will you finish the entire plate?
You may eat a few bites, push it around your plate a little bit – and this is exactly like fluids. If you like a drink, drink it. If you like Gatorade, drink it. A fan of plain water? Drink it. If you look at sports drinks, the main ingredient is always water. The bottom line is, you have to like what you’re drinking. Personally, I always carry a sports drink because I prefer the taste and flavor. The downside to that is, if I’m on a bike and I have a water bottle – do I like when my water bottle full of Gatorade heats up and becomes warm? Most people don’t like hot sports drinks, and I don’t blame them. At that point, most people will prefer plain water.
If you have plain water, you need to make sure that you’re constantly drinking. But make sure you have food or a candy bar to go with it to help supplement the electrolytes and calories – those are important.
With that said, I know a lot of people who like to drink flavored beverages. I know people who put Kool Aid in their hydration packs to enhance the taste. People like flavors because they tend to consume more of it. You have to drink whatever you like.
I have a lot of climber friends who love to drink Pedialyte, and they swear by it for hydration purposes.
Absolutely, and for good reason. It has about two to three times the amount of sodium that a Gatorade has. On a clinical side, you want to load up on the sodium to increase absorption and retention. This means you don’t have to take as much water along for climbing. If you’re a cyclist or hiker, you can carry as much water as you’d like. However, for a climber heading up a wall, carrying water becomes a heavy issue – Pedialyte offers a solution that allows you to carry less water during your climb.
The only downside is that for an extremely active person, there aren’t enough carbohydrates in Pedialyte to really gain a metabolic advantage for increasing or maintaining performance.
K: I’m at the rock gym right now, and we sell Gatorade here. Our facility’s lack of air conditioning lends to my water bottle always being a tepid temperature, so I constantly feel inclined to reach into the cool fridge and grab a cold Gatorade. It just makes you feel better.
Absolutely, you tend to drink way more when you’re enjoying a cold beverage that feels refreshing. When I’m out on a long bike ride, I always make up a bottle of Excelerade, and keep it in the fridge. That’s the first thing I drink before it becomes warm, then I switch to water. It depends on your preference, and there are advantages and disadvantages to both.
I had a few graduate students that did a masters thesis a few years back on rock climbers. What they found was that when they drank plain (flavored) water versus enhanced sports drinks, they tended drink more of the sports drink, which helped them feel better, and experienced significantly less muscle stress. They drank plenty of the water, which aided with the hydration, but it wasn’t enough to minimize muscle stress, change their perception of effort, etc.
My last question is: many of our crew head out on adventures with their kids in tow. How does hydration differ for younger outdoor explorers? Do their bodies respond differently?
Kids are not small adults; that’s the biggest thing. If you notice, children don’t sweat as much as adults do. We tend to start sweating right away, but pre-pubescent individuals don’t. The key is making sure that they like to drink what they have. Believe it or not, grape is the number one flavor choice for children. With children, it’s even more imperative that we encourage them to sip, continually be sipping. You don’t want to force them to drink, but get them to gradually consume their beverage. Their bodies rely on other mechanisms besides sweat to keep cool.
Before you head out with kids, make sure you taste test everything. Typically, you don’t need a very sweet drink. Additionally, if there is any way to keep it cool, do that. Children are far more likely to drink more when the beverage is cool – but the same concept operates for adults.
It sounds like key here, for both adults and adolescents, is to drink. Keep drinking.
The overall message is to keep drinking at regular intervals. You basically have to be your own lab rat and figure out what works best for your needs and situation. There are a lot of things that come into play, and to make one blanketed statement to apply to everyone is difficult. It’s really a learning process. Be it plain water or sports drinks, some people prefer Kool Aid – it’s all up to you, but drink enough of it.
Have I mentioned the importance of continually drinking water? Let me emphasize it again: There are few things you can do to keep yourself performing optimally, feeling powerful on the trail, and maintaining proper hydration levels than simply remembering to drink. Whether you’re committed to keeping your hydration pack free of sticky residues by solely consuming water, or can’t get enough of the sweet taste from your favorite sports drink – just drink it, and drink it frequently. Test your preferences, find a system that works best for you, and devote yourself to it.
I must send heaping amounts of gratitude and appreciation to John Seifert for graciously answering my bombardment of curiosity with clear and helpful knowledge. From backcountry hikers and summit-bagging climbers to families who strive to spend every moment enjoying the outdoors, any active adventurer can reap a wealth of wisdom from Seifert’s expertise in the realm of hydration.