Hydration monitoring and hydration breaks are so important in sports that they’re even being included in game day operations for sporting competitions and matches at every level.
Attitudes towards hydration have changed a lot in recent decades. Older generations of coaches and players will remember the phrase “Water makes you weak”, underscoring attitudes towards staying hydrated during conceptions and training.
However, even though that’s changed considerably, there are still best practices and approaches to hydration that not every coach will know.
Why is hydration so important in professional sports?
Exercise and sports use a lot of energy. Athletes sweat, whether they’re training or playing in a competitive game.
Governing bodies worldwide now recognize hydration as a crucial factor in health and safety. During the hottest times in the year — when athletes are training or playing in competitions — poor hydration can put athletes’ health and lives at risk.
As a result, coaches, sports nutritionists, and performance staff are now encouraging hydration best practices amongst players. Teams and clubs at every level are taking hydration budgets seriously. It can cost $20,000 or more simply for bottled-water for a team of 30 athletes. Plus, other budgets are often needed for sports drinks and hydration-related equipment.
At the professional level, there are NFL coaches submitting $120,000 budgets for water, sports drinks, and hydration-related equipment.
Even in college leagues, teams are spending $60,000 annually on 21,000 gallons of water and sports drinks for their players, according to recent research. It’s one of the reasons sports drinks brands, such as Lucozade and Gatorade invest so much in branding and advertising with teams. Sports drinks bands make millions from these sponsorship deals.
Hydration is only a part of the budgets professional and college teams invest in fueling athletes for performance and recovery. Colleges invest millions in athlete hydration and performance-related activities, thanks to an NCAA rule change in 2014.
Recent surveys have found that cutbacks haven’t reduced what college teams are spending on equipment, technology, and hydration. According to these surveys, 44% of teams spend at least $50,000 in these areas, to ensure athletes are well looked after, fit, healthy, and playing at their best in every game and training session.
Despite these investments, hydration is one area that’s often overlooked.
Health, Safety, Performance and Hydration
An athlete’s fluid intake plays such an important role in the health, safety, and performance of players. Hence the large budgets dedicated to water, sports drinks, and hydration monitoring.
And yet, players are often reluctant to take it seriously. NATA position statements have found that over 50% of high school, college, and professional athletes start training or competitive games dehydrated.
Dehydration is a serious concern. Dehydration — combined with prolonged physical activity and hot weather — can greatly increase the risk of heat-related illnesses. Heat or sun stroke, for example, is a serious danger to athletes at every level. Tragically, dehydration has caused hundreds of high school and college athlete deaths since 2000.
Adequate hydration for athletes is a year-round concern. Hot weather isn’t the only time of year when hydration should be taken seriously. Numerous studies have found that muscle cramps, sluggishness, and other performance-related issues are all linked to hydration levels and fluid intake.
Another comprehensive study last year (Barnes & Baker (2021)) found that: “22 of 34 studies reported dehydration as having a negative impact on cognition, skills, and physical performance in sports such as basketball, soccer, American football, and others.”
71% of these studies found dehydration causes reductions in “cognitive performance”, and 67% found “dehydration to have a negative impact on sport-specific skills.”
It’s that simple. Dehydration reduces performance, can cause serious health problems, and even death.
Despite these dangers, coaches often struggle to encourage players to drink enough water during training and competitions. Hydration efforts are usually met with eye rolls and smiles, before players carry on with whatever they’re focused on. Unfortunately, hydration is rarely at the forefront of a player’s mind.
How can coaches improve monitoring and hydration levels?
Firstly, we need to consider the different ways coaches and performance staff can monitor hydration levels. There are a number of options. Unfortunately, none of them are perfect. A lot of the data is subjective, depending on the way individual athletes process water, the temperature, and how often players can take a drink during games.
Here are the options for coaches:
- Urine Specific Gravity (USG) or Urine Color analysis. Using a simple urine color chart, or a more detailed Urine Specific Gravity (USG). Either method is easy to integrate and seen as a simple way to show players whether they’re hydrated enough.
- Sweat Rate Assessments. Patches, apparel, towels, and other laboratory-grade tools can be used to assess how much fluid a player has lost to sweat during games and training. Providing this is combined with a pre-activity assessment, it’s a fairly accurate way to monitor hydration levels.
- Saliva Testing. A simple and effective way to see whether athletes are hydrated enough. It’s minimally invasive, but does require more staff support and athlete adherence. Many are less than enthusiastic about samples being taken.
- Bio-Impedance for Body Composition and Hydration. For those already using bio-impedance for body composition monitoring, this is another way to assess hydration levels. However, there are some limitations, as is the case with most hydration monitoring tests.
- Weigh-Ins for Fluid Loss. Pre and post-activity weigh-ins are an easy-to-implement way to assess fluid consumption and loss. Weigh-ins are such a normal part of sports training that they tie in nicely with other body weight maintenance testing.
Now, let’s consider more effective ways to make sure players are drinking enough:
- Once you’ve got a monitoring system in-place, make sure everyone working with players is aware of it. Ensure its standard practice before, during, and after training and competitive games.
- Keep hitting the hydration message home. Make sure players know how important this is. Train them to stay hydrated, before, during, and after any sporting activity.
- Pull up staff or players who are falling short. Don’t let anyone treat hydration as unimportant. Maintain hydration as a constant team-wide best practice.