Words from an Old Salt

By: Kevin Irwin

We’ve entered into the heart of the summer. It seems this year has been milder than the last few – we’ve actually had the occasional rainfall. Sure, we had a spike in temperatures to end June, but we’ve had a cool(er) start to July. It should go without saying that you need to remember to hydrate, hydrate, hydrate in weather like this.

Now you’ve probably heard this a million times (and common sense should tell you this), so I’m not going to belabor the need to drink fluids. Instead, I want to discuss an aspect of the discussion which sometimes is ignored and in which I’ve been taught some painful lessons. To start off, let me relate a hydration related story from back in the old days – the days when we only had one kind of Gatorade and it only came in two flavors (orange or lemon-lime; none of these modern “Lime Cucumber” or “Citrus Watermelon” flavors, as refreshing as they may be).

My senior year, University of Houston hosted the SWC Track and Field Championships. As you may know, Houston is a place where the relative humidity is likely to be as high as the temperature. Knowing I had to race under such conditions, I attempted to stay as hydrated as possible. Every time I went to the bathroom, I’d fetch a fresh glass of water to drink, replacing any fluid I’d just lost. Sure, I had to pee every hour or so as a result, but that was enough time to finish a race between bathroom breaks. As it turned out, my plan worked, because on a series of hot and soupy nights, I was able to be competitive in the 10K then bounce back with a good showing in the 5K two days later.

Let’s skip forward several years to my learning experiences in the marathon (trust me, the marathon can be a cruel teacher). In 1997, I ran the New York Marathon. I was on pace for my goal until the wheels fell off crossing into Manhattan, ultimately having to run/walk the rest of the way, finishing with leg cramps. The next fall in San Antonio, I had a similar result – no leg cramps, but feeling completely and utterly drained too early. What went wrong?

Well, many things went wrong. But one common thread in both races was that it was warm, not terribly so, but enough to make me sweat quite a bit. I had been consuming liquids consistently through the race; as noted, I knew this this was important from experience. But over 26.2 miles (as opposed to a 10K) that represents a lot of sweating; by the time I finished the race, I was crusted with salt like a margarita glass. Your body needs water to function properly, but just as importantly it needs sodium and potassium. Unfortunately, these three things are major components of sweat. (Alas, if only we sweated out fatigue toxins instead of important electrolytes.)

Part of preparing for a marathon is about hedging your bets. It’s a long enough race that not only can anything happen, something will happen. The lesson I learned from those races is to actively manage my electrolytes. While the sport drink at the race will contain some, you never know how it was mixed (Too weak? Too strong?). I started carrying electrolyte tablets, also taking them before long runs. The result? I felt much better both during and after the runs. Armed with this knowledge, my next marathon unfolded exactly as planned.

So remember, hydration is not just about how much water you should be drinking.  It’s also about replacing lost electrolytes. Not only does it affect performance, but also recovery. How you best do this is going to vary from person to person, so there’s no single definitive answer I can give you. But why not turn the summer heat to your advantage and use it learn what works for you?

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