Back to Basics: Hydration for Rowers

Being consistently hydrated is the most basic, and yet one of the most commonly overlooked variables in the day-to-day health and performance of a rower. The effects of being dehydrated, defined as 2% body weight loss, can negatively impact performance and recovery for hours to days. Hydrated cells are critical to get the most out of daily training and to facilitate recovery.

Water in the human body plays important roles in:

  • Cognitive processing, such as motor control and concentration. For rowers, this means enhanced focus on the fine tuning needed to execute a perfect stroke, especially when training at high intensities, rowing in unison with teammates, or being in environmental extremes.
  • Thermoregulation, which allows the body to maintain an optimal core temperature and avoid unnecessary spikes in heart rate.
  • Immune Function: Water moistens the mouth, eyes, and nose, which are our first line of defense against invading microorganisms. It is also a key part of many of our internal defense mechanisms, such as white blood cells, that are vital to controlling invasive microorganisms.
  • Nutrient transport: water makes up about 55% of our total blood volume, and is the main vessel for transporting oxygen and nutrients to the tissues that need them.
  • Cushioning major organs & lubricating joint spaces: the majority of the brain, heart, lungs, kidneys, and muscles are made of water. My colleague, Kate Burks, likens dehydrated and depleted muscles to a dried-up kitchen sponge. Water protects organs, makes joints more resilient and keeps muscles pliable.

Signs and Symptoms of Dehydration

If you have two of the following three indicators upon waking up, you are likely dehydrated:

  1. Color of the first-morning void is dark
  2. Waking body weight is lower than usual
  3. Thirst is greater than usual.

A few other “red flags” that may show up throughout the day are:

  • Trouble concentrating
  • Heat intolerance
  • Delayed recovery, either between pieces (e.g. 2 x 6k), between training sessions, or day-to-day
  • Higher-than-normal heart rate, either at rest or during exercise
  • High levels of perceived exertion and early fatigue during training

Severe dehydration may result in the development of symptoms of heat exhaustion or heat stroke such as headaches, muscle cramps, nausea, and vomiting. This is a situation that requires medical attention.

If this sounds familiar, start your day by drinking a large glass of water and be more proactive with fluid intake all day long, especially around training and with meals. The easiest way to self-monitor hydration is with urine color, volume, and frequency. For example, if it’s been longer than 3 hours since using the bathroom, the volume is low, and the color is dark, that’s a telltale sign of dehydration. If the frequency is more than once per hour, in high volumes, and urine is colorless, that is an indicator of over-hydration. Being over-hydrated can cause headaches, electrolyte imbalances, and disrupt sleep (which is extremely important for recovery). The key is to find the hydration “sweet spot,” using the restroom every 2 hours or so with a good volume and pale yellow color. One helpful tactic for athletes is to “front load” hydration, that is, drink plenty of fluids in the morning, be sure to rehydrate during and after training, and drink throughout the day, so there isn’t need to consume large volumes of water before bed.

If rowing in a lightweight classification, limit the amount of sweat loss needed to achieve race weight as much as you possibly can and rehydrate promptly after weigh-in to limit the negative consequences of dehydration on performance.

Looking a Little Closer: Measuring Hydration Status and Sweat Loss

In some cases, urine color isn’t a great indicator of hydration status. A few common reasons why are:

  • B-vitamin supplements: B-Vitamins are abundant in whole grains, enriched grains, legumes, potatoes, bananas, turkey, tuna, and milk, to name a few things. More often than not, taking a B-vitamin supplement results in its excretion in urine, which turns it a fluorescent yellow color. Rather than literally flushing it down the toilet, have B-vitamin-rich foods instead!
  • Beets and beet juices: beets contain an antioxidant pigment called betalain, which gives them their bright red hue. Consuming a lot of beets, drinking beet juice, or not having the genes to break the pigment down causes the red pigment to spill into urine – a harmless condition known as “beeturia.” So, no need to worry if you try some beet juice or eat a beet salad & discover a bit of a color change!

For improved accuracy, sports scientists and dietitians use a device called a refractometer to measure urine specific gravity (USG), or the concentration of molecules in urine. Below is an example of the spectrum of urine color with its corresponding USG and hydration status.

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Measuring sweat losses can also help you dial in fluid needs. The amount that you sweat varies based on the intensity and duration of training, your fitness level, and environmental conditions like ambient temperature and altitude.

To estimate needs:

  • Weigh yourself in minimal, dry clothing (e.g. uni) before and after training.
  • For every pound of weight lost, drink 16-24 oz. of fluid.
  • Example: 180 lbs. PRE – 176 lbs. POST = 4 lbs. lost (2.2% of body weight = dehydrated)
    • 4 lbs. x 16-24 oz. = 64 to 96 oz. to replace

Don’t gulp all that fluid down in one hit – it will come right back out! Rather, drink it over the course of several hours and combine with foods to enhance absorption. If you taste salt when sweat runs into your mouth or notice salt crystals forming on your clothing, arms or face after exercise, you may be a “salty sweater.” Simply consume salt-containing foods like pretzels or soup, or have some sports drink, to replace what was lost. If having trouble staying hydrated, try adding electrolytes – this can be so simple as salting your food or eating high-potassium foods like bananas or potatoes.

Are Some Beverages Better Than Others? 

Often, people feel they need a sports drink to effectively rehydrate. There is also the notion that certain fluids are dehydrating and should be avoided.

In a recent study, researchers created a “beverage hydration index,” comparing 12 common drinks. Well-hydrated subjects drank 1 liter of water over 30 minutes, and their 4-hour urine output was measured. The same protocol was followed with three other beverages on different testing days. The only beverages that were statistically “more hydrating” (e.g. body retains more fluid) than water were milk and an oral rehydration solution – both of which were higher in electrolytes than the sports drink. The caffeine in coffee and tea did not have a dehydrating effect in small amounts (e.g. 1-2 cups of coffee, or about 1.5-3mg/kg body weight). This has been shown in other studies as well (like this one and this one). The take-home message here is that all fluids and fluid-rich foods can contribute to hydration needs!

When choosing a beverage, consider your individual goals:

  • If your goal is to lose body fat, then choose a low-calorie fluid option.
  • If sensitive to caffeine (e.g. heart palpitations, nervousness, jitters), avoid it.
  • Sports drinks may be helpful if the session is long and depleting, but are not a one-size-fits-all.
  • If sweat losses are exceptionally high, it might be helpful to include milk in your recovery nutrition plan. Aside from its natural electrolyte content, it also helps repair muscle with protein and replenishes muscle glycogen with carbohydrate post-exercise.
  • An oral rehydration solution or milk might be helpful if you have limited access to fluids, or can’t easily use the restroom – as can sometimes be the case during travel.

Hydration Tips and Tricks

Here are some ways to increase fluid intake all day long:

  • Carry a water bottle with you at all times
  • Aim to drink at least 2 cups of water with every meal
  • Brew a cup of herbal tea in the evening
  • Snack on whole or sliced fruit and veggies with hummus or yogurt dip
  • Add raw, steamed, sautéed or roasted vegetables to meals
  • Have 8 oz. of 100% fruit or vegetable juice with a protein source as a snack
  • Make a fruit smoothie for breakfast or a snack
  • Start lunch or dinner with a bowl of vegetable soup

The Bottom Line

Monitor urine color, volume, and frequency with the goal of a pale yellow color and good volume every 2 hours or so. Aim to enter training sessions in a hydrated state. Sweat losses aren’t always the same, so try weighing yourself before and after different types of training, replacing the weight lost with fluid. Add electrolytes and space out intake as fluid needs increase. All beverages and high water content foods contribute to hydration, so drink and snack on high water foods all day long!

This article is based off a fact sheet created by the USOC Sports Nutrition Team. Liz Fusco is the Performance Dietitian for USRowing and can be reached at lfusco@usrowing.org.

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