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  • Brian Bender, PhD

Hydration and Athlete Recovery: Getting Back to Action Faster

Updated: May 6

Intense physical exercise stresses the body. This stress leads to adaptations that improve your ability to perform athletically. But, importantly, only if you are recovering well. Proper hydration is an important recovery need that can get forgotten to other important elements of nutrition, stretching, rest, and massage. However, since a major goal of recovery-based activities is reducing the overall time for recovery, forgetting hydration is a mistake.


Consequences of Inadequate Recovery


Overtraining can have serious consequences for athletes, both physically and mentally. Physically, overtraining can lead to a number of undesirable side effects. It can cause an imbalance in hormones that regulate energy production, leading to feelings of exhaustion and fatigue. In addition, overtraining may lead to an increased risk of injury due to weakened immune systems and reduced joint stability. Overtraining can also result in muscle imbalances and even muscle loss from the body’s inability to repair itself quickly enough.



Mentally, overtraining can cause changes in mood, including depression and anxiety. When athletes become too physically drained from their training sessions, their mental capacity may suffer as well. With a lack of mental clarity, athletes may find it difficult to focus on day-to-day tasks or become easily distracted by things that wouldn't normally bother them. If an athlete is unable to get adequate rest between workouts or competitions they are more susceptible to developing long term issues such as burnout or chronic fatigue syndrome. Additionally, they could be putting themselves at risk for more serious health issues such as heart attack or stroke due to overexertion of the body’s cardiovascular system. Therefore, it is important for athletes to be aware of the dangers associated with overtraining and understand how important it is to set realistic goals when training and competing in order to prevent these long-term consequences from taking hold.


Recovery Speed


Athletes strive to recover faster after intense training or competition in order to quickly get back to their peak performance levels. Being able to rebound quickly is a key factor in any athlete's success, as it enables them to avoid burnout and injury, while also allowing them to take advantage of the positive adaptations that occur during rest and recovery. Faster recovery times also allow athletes to train and compete more frequently, resulting in greater success. Being able to return quickly from strenuous activity helps athletes stay healthy and avoid injury while also improving their overall performance.


Recovering faster enables athletes to get back on the field or court quicker, giving them a competitive edge over other players. It also improves their endurance and strength, allowing them to perform at a higher level longer without experiencing fatigue or pain. Additionally, if they are able to rebound quickly from physical exhaustion they can maintain maximum focus during a game or practice session which is essential for optimal performance levels. This is crucial for athletes with a demanding season schedule. Depending on their sport, athletes may have multiple competitions within a short amount of time, which can cause their performance levels to suffer if they don't allow enough time for recovery. Resting and recovering between workouts or games not only helps decrease fatigue and soreness, but also allows the athlete's body time to repair damaged tissue, which is essential for optimal performance. Additionally, muscle protein synthesis - a process responsible for generating new muscle proteins - is most effective when performed with adequate rest and nutrition. With this in mind, athletes will often try to optimize recovery strategies such as using sports massage therapy, ice baths, or foam rolling in order to reduce tension in muscle fibers after an intense workout.



Faster recovery times are achieved through a combination of proper nutrition, adequate rest and active recovery techniques such as massage therapy and stretching. It’s important for athletes to give themselves adequate rest between practice sessions and competitions in order for the body time to fully heal before the next workout or competition. Active recovery methods such as massage therapy can help speed up the healing process by reducing inflammation caused by intense exercise while stretching helps keep joints limber and improve flexibility throughout the body.


Nutrition is key for any athlete looking to optimize their recovery rate; eating nutrient-dense foods including protein and complex carbohydrates fuels muscles after strenuous workouts. Providing the right nutrients shortly after exercise helps replenish glycogen stores so that muscles are ready for another bout of activity. Eating foods high in anti-inflammatory properties help reduce soreness post-exercise while ingesting protein aids in muscle repair and growth. Furthermore, hydrating properly during training sessions and afterwards helps replenish fluids lost through sweat and prevent dehydration, which can interfere with physical performance.



Hydration Recovery


Hydration has an important impact on Heart Rate Variability (HRV). HRV is a measure of the body’s ability to adapt to stress and is an indicator of general wellness and recovery. When we are dehydrated, the heart rate often increases as it compensates for the lack of water in the body by increasing the output of each beat. Additionally, when we are dehydrated, our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) becomes more active and elevates stress hormones like cortisol and epinephrine which can lead to further decreases in HRV. Therefore, adequate hydration is essential for healthy HRV since it helps keep the SNS functioning normally and reduces the risk of dehydration-related heart rhythm disturbances.


Research has shown that even mild levels of dehydration can significantly reduce HRV. Research reviews have found that when participants are mildly dehydrated (dehydrated by 1-2% of their body mass), there are significant changes in heart rate compared to when they were well-hydrated. Similarly, another study found that cyclists who drank 500 ml of water 30 minutes after exercise had an increase in post-exercise cardiac vagal reactivation. This indicates that even small amounts of water may be beneficial for maintaining healthy HRV levels and faster recovery.


In addition to helping maintain healthy levels of PNS activity, hydration also impacts our cardiovascular system by improving blood flow and helping regulate blood pressure. It helps dilate blood vessels and encourages proper distribution of oxygen throughout the body which helps stabilize our heart rate and maintain normal blood pressure levels. Proper hydration allows us to better cope with stressors both physical and mental as it improves our overall level of vitality—reducing fatigue and enhancing cognitive performance—and improves our overall quality of life by reducing health risks associated with dehydration such as headaches, dizziness, poor mood, or difficulty concentrating.



Thus, hydration plays a critical role in maintaining optimal levels of HRV since it helps regulate both our sympathetic and parasympathetic systems as well as improve cardiovascular function leading to better overall health outcomes. Therefore proper hydration should be encouraged in order to support optimal cardiovascular functioning and is an important part of any health plan or lifestyle regimen.


Hydration Readiness


It is recommended to hydrate before, during, and after intense physical exercise to reach optimal hydration levels. The exact timing and amount of hydration required may vary depending on individual factors such as body size, environmental conditions, and duration and intensity of exercise.


As a general guideline, it's recommended to drink 17-20 fluid ounces of water 2-3 hours before exercising, and 7-10 fluid ounces every 10-20 minutes during exercise to maintain proper hydration. After exercise, it's recommended to drink 20-24 fluid ounces of water for every pound of body weight lost during exercise to rehydrate.


It is important to keep in mind that the time it takes for the body to fully absorb fluids and electrolytes can vary and may take several hours, so it's essential to continue hydrating regularly throughout the day. It's also a good idea to monitor urine color and quantity to gauge hydration levels, as clear or light-colored urine is a sign of good hydration.


Hydration readiness can be highly personalized and is impacted by their state of heat acclimatization. Athletes can measure their state of heat acclimatization in several ways. Sweating rate, the amount of sodium lost in sweat, and skin temperature are some reliable indicators of an athlete's degree of acclimatization to hot temperatures. For example, athletes should monitor their sweating rate to understand how much fluid they are losing through sweat and whether they need to replace it appropriately. Athletes should also track the amount of sodium lost in each hour of activity, as increased sweat sodium losses indicate a lack of acclimatization and a greater risk of dehydration. Additionally, assessment of skin temperature before, during and after exercise can help athletes gauge their level of heat acclimatization, since elevated skin temperatures are indicative of reduced thermoregulation efficiency that results from inadequate acclimatization and higher risk for dehydration.



Most importantly, an athlete’s core body temperature should remain steady during periods of exercise in high temperatures if the athlete has acclimatized successfully. As such, it is recommended for athletes to continuously monitor their core temperature levels while exercising in order to ensure that they are indeed acclimatized and not experiencing any adverse effects from exercise in extreme heat.


The level of heat acclimatization an athlete has achieved is significant for hydration readiness because it informs how much fluid and electrolytes (such as sodium) athletes must replace during activity. An athlete who is well-acclimatized will likely require less water replacement than someone who is not yet acclimatized because their body’s thermoregulatory mechanisms will be more efficient at maintaining homeostasis with less sweat loss. Similarly, an athlete who is not fully heat-acclimated will have increased sweat sodium losses which will necessitate electrolyte replacement in addition to water replacement in order to avoid dehydration. Therefore, understanding an athlete's individual level of heat acclimatization is essential for formulating the most appropriate plan for hydration readiness before exercise begins.


Overall, athletes are driven by the desire to perform at their best level possible both on competition day and throughout their season schedules. Recovering quickly after intense training or competition allows them to do just that; optimizing recovery strategies such as utilizing sports massage therapy or foam rolling techniques combined with proper nutrition and hydration helps these athletes achieve this goal.


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