Hydrating the Elite

By Emily Beers

In ExPhysiology, Medical/Injuries

April 17, 2015

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Olympic gold medalist Simon Whitfield reveals how elite triathletes figured out widely held hydration guidelines are wrong.

When Simon Whitfield competed in the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games—the first to include the sport of triathlon—the information he had about hydration was confusing at best.

“Lots of things were haphazard. Lots of different information contradicted each other,” Whitfield said.

When Whitfield first got involved in triathlons as a teenager in the early 1990s, he said North American athletes’ beliefs about hydration were just plain wrong.

“I came in in a generation where we had no idea what we were doing,” said Whitfield. “We were told to hydrate, so we’d hydrate like crazy people. … You’d see people everywhere guzzling giant 2-liter bottles before a race.”

Worst-case scenario: Overdrinking while exercising can cause exercise-associated hyponatremia (EAH), a condition that leaves an athlete with a dangerously low sodium concentration in the blood. The effect can be life threatening, as explained in the CrossFit Journal article “Water Wise.”

Whitfield explained that the elite-triathlon community rejects hydration guidelines based on myths and instead follows a simple plan that’s in line with the advice of scientists: Drink when you’re thirsty.

“From my generation, we had to figure out by trial and error (to learn that) chugging water before a race doesn’t work,” Whitfield said.

He added, laughing: “That idea that if you wait until you’re thirsty, then it’s too late, you’re already dehydrated—that’s crazy.”

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