Hydration, sports drinks and football performance

The notion of avoiding fluid during sport to train, toughen or adjust an athletes body to handle dehydration is extremely outdated & scientifically incorrect. Thankfully, most sports people, coaches and administrators now agree and recognise this practice as being harmful to both an athlete's performance and health.

Hydration Testing


Obviously the outcome of not drinking enough fluid is dehydration. Some people assume that dehydration only becomes a problem when a certain level of fluid loss is reached. Others may also think that because they donít collapse or get dizzy or wobbly during exercise that the negative effects of dehydration were avoided.

Scientific studies however have revealed the complete opposite. Even very small amounts of dehydration will reduce an athlete's performance in both individual or team sports, including football. These effects on performance are not limited to elite athletes. Recreational sports people are also affected as are children.

Less performance

Unfortunately an athlete's performance is reduced due to dehydration before they even notice their performance beginning to fade. Dehydration at levels less than two percent of body weight are enough to cause a definite decrease in performance. An increase in heart rate, body temperature and perception of how hard the exercise feels are the first affects of dehydration.

These are accompanied by a decrease in concentration and mental functioning and a reduction in skill co ordination. As dehydration progresses further muscle cramping can occur. If higher levels of dehydration (over three-to-four percent) are reached there is an increased risk of nausea, vomiting, diarrheoa and other gastro intestinal problems during exercise.

Avoiding dehydration is one of the major challenges for all sports people who want to perform at their best. It may not be possible to achieve full fluid replacement during all activities, especially during AFL football due to the length and intensity of games (even more difficult in hot/humid weather).

Studies show most athletes can expect to lose on average approximately 1L/hr, and in hot, humid weather 2-3L/hr. However all athletes including footy players can reap the rewards of better hydration if they look to improve drinking strategies during exercise and minimize dehydration as much as possible.

Which fluid is best during exercise?

Numerous scientific studies have proven sports drink to be a great choice of fluid during most forms of exercise, especially those over one hour duration. Consuming a sports drink during sports such as football in preference to other fluids has been shown to improve performance. This is due to two major factors:

  1. Sports drinks contain an optimal combination of fluids, carbohydrates and electrolytes which results in improved hydration.
  2. The carbohydrate in the sports drink provides the body with extra energy during exercise.

The improved hydration achieved with sports drinks is due to several factors:

  • The concentration of carbohydrate in sports drinks (between six-to-eight percent) delivers both the carbohydrate & fluid quickly. A higher carbohydrate concentration (such as in soft drink, juice, etc.) slows down absorption and increases the risk of a gut upset
  • The sodium in sports drinks helps drive the desire to drink, and therefore helps to ensure that the athlete stays better hydrated. Alternatively, if a footy player was to only drink water during a game this reduces the drive to drink before adequate fluid has been consumed, resulting in unavoidable dehydration
  • The sodium in sports drinks also aids in getting the fluid and carbohydrate absorbed more quickly
  • Studies have also shown that sports people are more likely to drink larger volumes if the fluid is flavoured, sweetened and contains sodium (such as in a sports drink)
Drink during exercise

Athletes must take every opportunity to drink during exercise. Thirst is not a good guide to dehydration. Once a person feels thirsty they are already dehydrated. Athletes, therefore need to drink to a plan and begin drinking as soon as possible after starting exercise.

Athletes require approximately 250ml (1 cup) of sports drink every 15 minutes. To ensure this amount is consumed the athlete must drink small amounts at regular intervals. This helps to ensure the fluid continues to be rapidly absorbed.

Not drinking regularly or starting to drink too late after the start of exercise will result in dehydration. This slows the rate at which a person absorbs fluids. In these cases the athlete will often become bloated, feel like they have a stitch and/or feel sick.

This is the reason why, for example, in an AFL game the team trainers will run onto the field at every possible opportunity. This helps ensure that the athlete has the best chance of avoiding dehydration. This in turn results in a faster, more skillful and entertaining game, and helps avoid the severe health consequences that can occur due to dehydration.

Which fluid is best after exercise?

As part of the footballers recovery plan it is necessary to rehydrate as quickly as possible after exercise. They need to drink plenty of fluid to cover the fluid lost during exerciseand ongoing sweat & urine losses. The athlete also needs to replace the glucose (carbohydrate) used by the muscles during exercise, back into their body. This helps ensure they recover in time for their next training session or game. This process needs to be done as quickly as possible after finishing activity.

Sports drinks are once again a great choice for after exercise, as they help rehydrate the body and also provide carbohydrate for replenishment of energy stores.

Maintaining hydration and energy levels is a critical part of making sure an AFL footballer or a local footy player performs at his best. Well formulated sports drinks can help to achieve both of these things.

So next time youíre at a game and you see a trainer stop to give your favourite player a drink, hope that he accepts because having that drink will help to give a better performance for your team and a more skillful spectacle for the crowd.

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