By Jessica Heath and Neal Goulet
More than 30 years later, it’s still painful to watch Gabriela Andersen-Schiess stagger around the track in the Los Angeles Coliseum for nearly six minutes.
Decked out in red shorts and tank top and a white ball cap, Andersen-Schiess represented her native Switzerland in the first women’s marathon, held during the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.
That August day was hazy, hot and humid, and AndersenSchiess inexplicably missed the final water station. The temperature was in the 80s when she entered the stadium through a dark tunnel. Leaning uncontrollably to her left, she was reduced to walking with long, spastic strides, unable to stay in a single lane as she made a complete lap.
“My head and everything was still functioning,” she said afterward. “I knew where I had to go. Through dehydration, your body cramps up. I kind of told myself, try to keep running, try to stay upright. My muscles just didn’t respond.”
Three people immediately tended to her as she slumped across the finish line. She was fine within two hours, she said, and she still managed to beat seven other runners.
Today, Andersen-Schiess remains a powerful symbol of courage and determination – and of the dangers of dehydration.
NOT ENOUGH WATER
Of course, most of us will never compete on a grand stage such as the Olympics, but proper hydration is an everyday concern whether we play competitive sports, go for a family bike ride, or simply spend time in the heat.
Not only is dehydration a serious heat-related disease, Johns Hopkins Medicine noted, it can be a dangerous side effect of diarrhea, vomiting and fever. Children and adults ages 60 and older are particularly vulnerable to dehydration. Heat stroke is the most severe form of heat illness and can be life-threatening.
At a time when Americans drink ever-bigger and greater quantities of beverages, they aren’t drinking enough of the most important one: water. Studies and stories dating a decade or longer have chronicled our water-consumption deficiency.
A Boston College dietician wrote in 2011: “We all have heard for years that we need at least eight cups of water a day but few of us are listening; at least two-thirds of Americans pull up a quart short, according to survey data. In water’s place we guzzle coffee, tea, colas, alcohol and flavored drinks – beverages that don’t help us go the extra mile the way water can.”
Comprising some 60 percent of our body weight, water is necessary for pretty much every bodily function. Our bodies can’t make or store water, the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons noted, so we have to replace the water lost as sweat or urine.
Dehydration during exercise can have a negative effect on performance and increase the potential for injury and heat illness. Athletes require even more water and should drink it before, during and after sports or exercise.
As it was for women’s marathoner Andersen-Schiess during the 1984 Olympics, muscle cramping is a sure sign of dehydration and the necessities of seeking medical attention and increasing fluid intake.
Thirst is not a reliable indicator of dehydration. You may not feel thirsty until you already have lost approximately 2 percent of your body weight, which is enough to hurt performance. What’s more, if you stop drinking when your thirst is quenched, you only will get half of what you need.
Urine color is a better barometer: a large volume of clear urine suggests that you are well hydrated; smaller amounts or dark yellow urine can indicate dehydration.
In order to keep athletes well hydrated, athletic trainers should provide easily accessible fluid. They also can make recommendations for fluid replacement based on sweat rate, environmental factors, and exercise intensity and duration.
Generally, the amount of sweat should be replaced by drinking the same amount of water. For every pound lost, drink 16 to 24 ounces of water. Foods with high water content – oatmeal, lettuce, tomato, broccoli, low-fat vanilla yogurt – also aid in proper hydration.
A note of caution: Too much fluid can cause over-hydration (hyponatremia), which results in little sodium in the blood and can cause critical illness.
SPORTS DRINKS VS. ENERGY DRINKS
For the most part, water is sufficient for staving off dehydration. But two categories of beverages – sports drinks such as Gatorade and Powerade, and energy drinks such as Red Bull and Monster– are increasingly popular. They also are widely misunderstood, both in terms of their purposes and their pitfalls.
Water is a good choice for activities lasting less than an hour and occurring at a low-tomoderate intensity. Sports drinks are appropriate for activities that last longer than one hour at moderate-to-high intensity.
If you notice white residue on your clothing or skin, it reflects your body’s loss of salt (sodium). Sports drinks essentially are flavored salt water: They replenish electrolytes (including sodium) and water after a tough workout. But it requires a really tough workout to call for a sports drink.
The Canadian Broadcasting Corp., Canada’s leading broadcast network, recruited a team of recreational runners for a 2014 story and tested their blood before and after a 45-minute run.
“None of the runners depleted either their glucose or electrolyte levels enough to require a sports drink to replenish them,” according to the story. “In many cases, electrolyte and glucose levels increased in the blood. The test revealed that they could have benefited from water alone.”
The CBC also noted that sports drinks can be high in sugar and sodium. For instance, the 41 grams of sugar (more than 10 teaspoons) and 330 milligrams of sodium in Gatorade’s Glacier Cherry Perform drink are more than a McDonald’s medium fries or a serving of Doritos Cool Ranch chips.
Most sports drinks contain no caffeine, which is a key difference between them and energy drinks. Most sports drinks are not consumed in the context of exercise, even though that’s what they are formulated for.
By comparison, energy drinks do not hydrate and can even dehydrate because of such high levels of caffeine and other legal stimulants. Caffeine can range from 75 to 200 mg in an energy drink compared with 34 mg in Coke and 55 mg in Mountain Dew.
“Energy drinks should not be used while exercising as the combination of fluid loss from sweating and the diuretic quality of the caffeine can leave someone severely dehydrated,” according to Brown University health services.
Energy drinks also contain “significantly more” carbohydrates and calories than sports drinks, and most of those calories come from sugar, according to competitor.com. As a result, energy drinks are more likely than sports drinks to cause stomach upset during exercise.