Two runners took the starting line of their first trail race. They were very much alike.
Both followed the same running program. Both trained on the same trails, and both even used the same type of gear. But there was one difference. The difference was in their race day results.
One runner hit the wall, forced to walk the last 10 miles to the finish. The other runner…smashed the course record.
What made the difference on race day? Why did one person run a phenomenal race while the other crashed?
The answer: HYDRATION. And the managing of that process.
Why is hydration important?
Proper hydration is the key to become a better runner. Whether that’s running further or faster. The fact is, if you don’t hydrate correctly, you will never make the gains you desire. That, or give up on trail running altogether.
First, understand that your body is built up of more than 68% water. Every one of your trillion cells rely on water to function. Without water…well, there is no you. In other words, without proper hydration and nutrition, your body will struggle running long distances. You will struggle because you will lack the necessary energy for running excess mileage.
Even more, hydration becomes increasingly essential for trail runners in particular. Why is this so?
Well, there’s not a whole lot of opportunity to re-hydrate in the woods. Think about it, you run down a long trail with no place to refuel. There are no stores to buy a drink and no one around to help. It’s just you, the trails, and whatever supplies you bring along.
So as a trail runner, it’s critical to develop a hydration strategy, not only to boost performance and increase comfort, but also…one that will keep you safe.
Hydration is not only about drinking water either. Hydration is also about keeping your electrolytes in check. Too much or too little can throw your body off balance leading to a number of problems. We will discuss these issues later. But first, let’s dive into the nuts and bolts of hydration. I will now reveal exactly what a trail runner should drink and how much.
How should you drink and how much?
There are two types of fluids available for trail runners: water and electrolyte drinks. We already touched on the importance of water. Your body needs water to function. It requires constant replenishment when running for prolonged periods at a time.
And although it’s critical to re-hydrate with water, you must also replenish your electrolytes.
That’s where electrolyte drinks come in. These drinks replenish essential electrolytes–like sodium and potassium–lost through sweating. These lost electrolytes are required by the cells in your body to function. If you start cramping, chances are your electrolytes are out of wack.
Electrolyte drinks come in bottles and powders. Gatorade, Hammer Heed, and Accelerade are only a few examples. These drinks also provide simple sugars for quick hits of energy to fuel your run.
So now that you know what to drink… let’s discuss how much you’ll need. Whether you’re planning to run one long training run, or manage consumption on race day…once you head down a trail…you need proper fluid levels. Even on race day, the aid stations are miles apart.
One way to hydrate–and my personal favorite–is to drink when you’re thirsty. Grab a hydration pack or bottle, fill it up with fluid, and go get your hands dirty. Understand this: there’s a difference between drinking because you think you should, and drinking because you truly need the fluid. In this situation, ‘experience’ is your best teacher.
Alternatively, there’s a more traditional way to hydrate. To do so, consider fluid consumption in three separate stages: before, during, and after.
Although intake levels cannot be standardized, most runners will maximize performance by drinking between 16-24 ounces of fluid before a run. Time it for about 30 minutes to 2 hours beforehand. Try both water and sports drinks and see how your body responds to each.
Hydrating during your run is a different animal. The recommendation is between 4 to 10 ounces every 15-20 minutes. Adjust these numbers accordingly depending on your personal needs. For example, I tend to wait longer in between fueling but drink more. So again, practice during training, and find a sequence that best suits your body type.
In regard to hydrating afterward, drink as much as you feel is needed. Post-running hydration is about getting your fluid levels back to status quo and aiding in recovery. If we were to quantify the amount, shoot for 16-22 ounces per body pound lost. For best accuracy, weigh yourself before and after your run without clothing.
Okay, so you now know the importance of hydration. You’ve learned what to drink, and how much to drink. The only question left is, “how can I tell if I’m hydrating enough?” Keep reading to find out.
How can you tell if you’re hydrating enough?
Running for an hour or less shouldn’t require any hydration monitoring. However, running over an hour takes much more focus. The longer you run, the more careful you need to be.
Remember…as you sweat, you lose electrolytes and water. Without the right balance of electrolytes, you throw your body off. This means your performance will suffer, you can bonk out on race day, or even worse.
So, how can a trail runner tell if they are hydrating enough? Well, the best way is through their urine. Too dark and you’re not getting enough fluids. Too light and you are diluting your electrolytes. The perfect shade is a light yellow.
A few signs of dehydration are lack of energy, no peeing, dry skin, dizziness, and rapid heartbeat and/or breathing. However, if you are timing your fluid intake, you shouldn’t experience any of these problems. If you are experiencing symptoms of dehydration, then it’s time to reevaluate your approach.
Also, keep in mind that dehydration isn’t the only danger. Yes, too little fluid and you’re dehydrated. But too much fluid, and you are diluting sodium levels. Monitoring your urine color and following a timed hydration system is your best method for maintaining proper levels.
How to choose a hydration system for trail running?
Now that you have a basic understanding of hydration for trail runners, let’s choose the right system for you. On the trails, you’ll select from a hydration pack, belt, or handheld water bottle to hold fluids. Although, packs and handhelds are the most common.
Have you ever noticed people running trails with a backpack and some kind of hose attached? That’s a hydration pack. Hydration packs hold the most fluid out of all the available gear. Their bladders typically contain 32 ounces. This leaves you with an adequate amount of fluid for longer runs.
Consider if you’re drinking 8 ounces every 20 minutes. Now you can run well over an hour without a single refill. If you choose to run further than you can strategically place fluids somewhere along the trails. For example, run two 6 mile loops and refill from your car after each loop.
If you run with fewer fluids or have a place to refill, then you may want to consider a handheld water bottle. Handhelds come with a water bottle–usually between 10 to 14 ounces– and a holder to attach the bottle to your hand. There’s also a zipper pocket where you can store small accessories and fuel. Handheld water bottles are lighter than hydration packs, but hold less fluid.
What’s the best hydration system to use? It comes down to personal preference. Click here to learn how to choose the best hydration system for you.
So, back to the two runners at the beginning of the page. They were the same type of runners, but experienced very different results.
Their results didn’t come down to how bad they wanted it, as they both crossed the finish line. But what it did come down to was how well they hydrated. One runner learned how the right hydration method can provide phenomenal results. While the other learned that the wrong hydration method can do the exact opposite. Regardless, without proper hydration, trail running will always be a difficult endeavor.
Yes, learning proper hydration takes work in the beginning. But here’s the good news: once you gain some experience, you’ll likely stop monitoring your consumption. You’ll know how, what, and when to drink fluids instinctively and thrive while doing so. Sure, it takes some trial and error. But once you nail down proper hydration, you have built a foundation to become the best trail runner you can be. Happy trails…and happy hydration.