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- Alex Hutchinson (@sweatscience)
I (and everyone I know) have always taken this for granted: if you weigh yourself before and after a workout, the difference tells you how much fluid you lost to sweat (after correcting for any water that you drank during the workout). If you lose more than about 2% of your bodyweight, dehydration will impair your performance. That’s what the ACSM guidelines on hydration say:
If proper controls are made, BW [bodyweight] changes can provide a sensitive estimate of acute TBW [total body water] changes to access hydration changes during exercise.
But it turns out there’s actually a hot debate currently raging in the literature about this. The latest salvo just appeared online in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, from researchers in South Africa (Pretoria, not Cape Town, though Tim Noakes is indeed listed as a co-author). They studied 18 soldiers doing a 14.6-kilometre march while drinking “ad libitum” (however much they wanted), and took careful measurements of a whole series of physiological parameters. One of those parameters is “total body water” — the sum total of all water stored in the body, typically totalling about 60% of body mass — which they measured using radioactive tracers. When we talk about hydration and dehydration, that’s what we’re really talking about: is there sufficient TBW to ensure that all the tissues and cellular processes in the body are working optimally.
The surprise: the subjects lost 1.98% of their body mass on average, but their total body water stayed roughly the same (actually, it increased by 0.53% on average). They drank 0.85 litres per hour, but sweated out 1.289 litres per hour. In other words, they were losing fluid — so how did their total body water stay the same or increase?
Some of the possible explanations are explored in this 2007 paper by Ron Maughan. One is “metabolic water”: when your body converts fat or carbohydrate into ATP, it release some water as part of the sequence of chemical reactions (one estimate is that it releases 0.13 g per calorie burned). A more significant possibility, especially for endurance athletes, is that every gram of glycogen you store ties up an estimated 3-4 g of water. A marathoner who carbo-loads and packs in 450 grams of glycogen, for example, could in theory have 1.35 kg of “hidden” water that will gradually be released into the body as carbohydrate stores are released during exercise.
So what this study claims is that these soldiers were sent out on a march and told to drink however much they wanted; they lost 2% of their body mass, but weren’t dehydrated. Their interpretation: the body’s thirst mechanism is built to maintain the osmolality (the concentration of “stuff,” essentially) in the blood and tissues, which was indeed preserved in this experiment.
Is the debate over? Far, far from it. For one thing, a laboratory experiment at Penn State published last year found exactly the opposite — that the amount of weight you lose during exercises correlates perfectly with the loss in total body water. How to reconcile these diverging views? I’m not sure, but I’m digging into the literature and doing some interviews for an upcoming article.