A Personal History of Drinking During Exercise
In the late 1950s and early 1960s when I was in high school our coaches in all sports would not let us drink anything during practice. Afterwards we could drink all we wanted but there was a great fear then that fluids in the gut would cause abdominal cramping. Not drinking would also make us tougher, they assured us. I can recall going to football two-a-day practices in the heat and humidity of Indiana's August stifling in full pads -- with a slice of lemon stuck into my helmet. I’d pull it out every chance I got and suck on it to induce salivation. It was gross but kept my mouth a little moist for the two hours practices lasted.
Then in 1962 I went off to college. Remarkably, the football team was allowed to have ice to suck on during practices. Drinking from the water fountain was even encouraged during track workouts in the spring. I had died and gone to heaven! And no gut cramping. But our teams weren’t very good so I figured the ice and water were just indications that we were getting soft and the other teams that whuppped us (which was frequent) were probably going without water. So I always felt a little guilty drinking during workouts and practices.
The next time I recall giving much consideration to fluid replacement during sport was when I was an assistant high school coach in the mid-1970s. By now Gatorade was available and all of our teams used it. And liberally. I recall that one afternoon before a football game I discovered we were out of Gatorade and so I sent a couple of players to get some. They came back with a few gallons of some sort of sugary, orange-flavored drink. The store was out of Gatorade. So we used it. It wasn’t Gatorade, but so what? That night nearly every player on our team who drank a lot of it cramped. It was the weirdest thing I ever saw. Every third or fourth play from the second quarter on we’d have a player writhing on the field in agony with a muscle cramp. It took me years to figure out what happened that night. The drink the boys bought was highly sugar-concentrated. That meant it took a long time to process and pulled fluids out of the general system to the gut to dilute all of the sugar. So they were dehydrating due to too much sugar. The dehydration was apparently causing cramps.
So for the next few years I was very hesitant to recommend that athletes drink much fluid, especially sugary drinks, during competition. In the late 1970s and early 1980s I can recall doing marathons with no pre-race breakfast and nothing but a little water from the aid stations. I was still wary of sugar-drinks and over-hydrating. Some how I got through nine marathons in five years with no carbohydrate yet still with decent times. The same was true for scores of triathlons at various distances over the same period of time.
The last time I used water-only was in the spring of 1982. I paced a friend in a marathon. Before the race I told him to drink at every aid station as we were told to do back then. You couldn’t take in too much was the party line. So to set a good example for my friend I drank a lot of water at each aid station -- a lot! Before the half way point I was nauseous and ducked behind a car to throw up so he couldn’t see me. We finished under his goal time but the experience caused me once again to rethink hydration. It was apparent that I had taken in too much water. So I vowed to cut back on the amount in future races. Now I know what happened was that I became water intoxicated. Too much water just doesn’t sit well in the stomach.
By the fall of 1982 the scientific literature finally convinced me that I needed to go back to using a sugar-based sports drink during competition—and eat something before. I couldn’t believe what a difference this made not only in the way I felt during the race but also in my race performances. So about then I changed what I was telling athletes: Use a sugar-based drink but be just a little careful with how much you take in. Everyone I knew in the sports I was involved with (running, triathlon, cycling) was still saying to drink all you want—without limits. Some how that never seemed quite right to me, but I was definitely in the minority. So I figured I was wrong. My marathon nausea, however, kept me from wholeheartedly agreeing with everyone else.
Since the early 1980s sports drinks have gotten a lot better. I even have my own commercial drinks. But now it appears the scientific literature and long-endurance events are changing their tunes. It appears I was right about fluid volume during exercise after all. There should be restrictions on fluid intake during competition they’re saying. It’s even OK to lose some weight due to dehydration in a race; in fact, it’s expected and perhaps even dangerous if you don’t.
In a few days I’ll update you on what the literature is saying now about fluid replacement during exercise. The pendulum is swinging the other way—slightly.