Hydration – The Forgotten Factor In Your Performance?

If you are like me, you spend a lot of time and effort – and possibly money – on making sure your horse has the best diet, especially if you are competing. Hydration comes into this; how much, when, do you add electrolytes etc etc. Magazines like Horse and Hound are full of articles on feed and supplements, and have been for years. Fortunately they are now catching up with information for riders, but I think that when talking about this with clients and friends, too many people don’t really give their own dietary intake anything like enough.

I am not a dietician or nutritionist, but I do know a little because as a Physiotherapist, making sure that my patients have a healthy diet is important. A large part of this is hydration – ie taking on enough fluid to enable normal body and brain function for the activity being performed.

Water is key because it is involved in the chemical reactions that enable the body to function. This includes processes like digestion, cardiac activity and muscle contraction. It maintains normal blood volume and pressure and regulates body temperature. All of this is overseen by the brain. To do this, the amount of water in our bodies needs to stay within a certain percentage. Too concentrated – eg when we sweat – or too dilute – eg if we drink too much after exercise – and this disrupts the chemical reactions and therefore the normal function of the brain and body.

Mild dehydration is classed as a loss of 1-2% of body water, and moderate dehydration is classed as 2-5% loss. If we sweat enough to lose 2% of our body weight, this is enough to produce a noticeable reduction in our physical performance. Push that up to a 5% loss, and the loss of performance/ability to work rises to 30%. At this point, symptoms such as diarrhoea and vomiting can kick in.

Dehydration in general will cause a cascade of heart-related issues, ultimately resulting in a reduced cardiac output. Lactic acid production will also be increased, resulting in greater muscle fatigue.

Brain – or cognitive – function is perhaps even more at risk because whereas water makes up 50-70% of body weight, it makes up 75% of the brain. A 2% loss of hydration will impact on attention, short term memory and the ability to judge our own ‘state’. It is also thought that women are more adversely affected than men; perhaps not surprising now that we know women are also more likely to suffer the effects of concussion.

All of these effects are probably fairly easy to manage when doing simple tasks, but not when you factor in more complex activities such as driving, or exercise….and riding a horse is both of these….it is clear to see how serious the situation could be.

A loss of physical performance due to muscle fatigue and reduced cardiac output when you are riding cross country for example, has obvious safety implications. If you add in the reduction in attention then this is further amplified.

From a competitive aspect, even if safety is not quite such an issue – such as showing or dressage (and that isn’t to say loss of strength and attention aren’t a safety issue here, just perhaps less so) – then competitions will be won and lost because of the effects of dehydration. When tiny margins matter, you cannot afford to be the weaker rider or the less attentive rider.

Image courtesy of Sophie Callahan

When you look at all your preparation, don’t waste your time, effort and money on training you and your horse, developing your fitness and strength….only to fail because you were the one who didn’t drink enough (or too much, but you’d probably be more likely to do this after you ride/compete). It may be a good idea to rehearse your hydration volumes and frequencies, and plan your drinking throughout the day when competing. It is too easy when busy and under pressure to ‘do it in a minute’, or have just a quick swig and nothing more. If you make it routine when training it will be much easier to implement when competing.

Don’t forget, that when you feel thirsty, you are already getting into the dehydration zone, so the best plan is to prevent this happening. Below is a section that I have found on the website http://www.nutrition.org and I think you will find it very helpful. For more information please visit their website.


****** From nutrition.org

Before Exercise  

•    Drink about 500mls of fluid 2 hours before exercising to allow time for any excess to be lost in urine
•    Then drink a further 125-250mls immediately before exercise
•    Weigh yourself (see After Exercise below).

During Exercise 

•    Drink small amounts regularly, aiming for 125-250mls every 10-20 minutes. You can maintain optimal performance by replacing at least 80% of sweat loss during performance.

After Exercise 

•    You need to consume 150% of the amount of fluid lost during exercise to allow for the fluid that is naturally lost from the body via urine.  For example, if you have lost 1L of fluid, you need to drink 1.5L.
•    The easiest way to calculate your fluid loss is to weigh yourself before and after training. 1kg of weight loss resulting from exercise, is roughly equivalent to 1L of fluid loss.
•    Weight loss in kilos then needs to be multiplied by 1.5 to calculate the amount of fluid to consume
•    This does not need to be consumed all at once, immediately after exercise. Aim for 500ml immediately after training, then consume the remainder at intervals afterwards.”******

This Mug of tea is a little large, but holds just under 300ml of liquid

If you look at the size of my mug, then 500ml 2 hrs before exercise is nearly double its volume, 250ml just before/during is nearly as much…..I have to confess that was a bit of a shock to me, even though I drink lots of water throughout the day. So please join me in taking greater notice of how much you drink so that especially during warmer weather we can all maximise our potential.

Take care,