CrossFit workouts are, by nature, tumultuous, never-say-die events that test the mental and physical mettle of even the most experienced athlete. Muscles swell, joints groan and, in the ventilation-minimal construct of the box, both body and brain beg for hydration. We know that water is essential for survival as well as optimum performance, but when it comes to fitness for sport, seconds count, and taking that sip of water could cost you dearly. So under the watchful eye of your instructor and with your personal best within reach, what’s the right move when thirst begins to set in? And how do hydration needs differ for CrossFit athletes?
Gauging water consumption is, like squatting or kipping, an essential skill that requires continuing development. And the rewards — better general health and increased whiteboard dominance, for starters — are well worth the effort. The first step toward understanding proper hydration guidelines is grasping water’s broad effects on you, the athlete.
With moderate dehydration — or the loss of between 5 and 10 percent of the body’s fluid — heart and respiration rates rise to compensate for decreased plasma volume and blood pressure, body temperature increases, and there may be headaches, nausea and tingling in the limbs. You don’t want to know what happens with severe dehydration — beyond 10 percent loss — but let’s just say it involves hospitalization, if you’re lucky.
Ounces of water you should consume each hour during fairly intense training.
Even a smaller amount of fluid loss can have a significant impact on performance, energy and mood. “Water is critically important,” says Doug Katona, managing partner and head coach for CrossFit Endurance (crossfitendurance.com). “It affects blood, brain and muscle. As little as a 2 percent loss will affect performance. As soon as an athlete becomes even slightly dehydrated, performance will decline. This can mean a loss of seconds, minutes or hours, depending on the event. In CrossFit, even losing seconds can mean the difference between third and 30th. And it not only affects performance, but it also affects how your organs function and your overall health.”
According to Katona, the best way to avoid dehydration during a WOD is to ensure adequate hydration before you even set foot in the gym. “Everyone thinks of hydration during workouts, but it is just as, if not more, important for CrossFitters to address daily hydration and replenishment,” he says.
ADEQUACY VS. EXCESS
There are a number of factors, including climate, specific activity, conditioning level, body chemistry and nutrition, that go into determining an athlete’s daily hydration needs. “The answer is really to be educated on what it means to be properly hydrated and to make it an ever-evolving skill that will vary depending on where you are in your training,” Katona says. And if that sounds too vague and subjective, Katona agrees. “If you want to stick me to a hard formula, the average person should take their bodyweight in pounds and consume at least half of that in ounces daily. But keep in mind this is for someone who may not be as active, so you may need to increase that another 50 percent or more depending on the training modality or work requirement.”
Still, subjective measures can be useful — your performance will tell the tale. If you’re hitting the wall sooner than expected or recovery between workouts is slower, you may be missing the mark in the hydration department.
Achieving optimal hydration levels requires a steady hand. “Space out water intake throughout the day, don’t guzzle it down all at one time or try to catch up like a dog after a run; it’s got to be dosed in gradually,” says Katona, before elaborating on the dangers of overconsuming water in any one sitting. “Drinking too much plain water can lead to some devastating consequences. The goal is to maintain electrolyte levels so that the body can perform at peak levels. It’s not just water but what is in the water, namely key elements like sodium, potassium, magnesium, chloride and calcium. As a general and basic rule of thumb, most athletes should look at consuming a minimum of 16 ounces of water each hour under fairly intense training. If it’s hot outside, say over 88 or 90 degrees, you may need to adjust this according to individual sweat rate and electrolyte loss. Overconsumption of just plain water under heavy or prolonged training can also lead to being ‘water intoxicated.’ This is called hyponatremia and stems from low sodium levels. It can lead to bloating, nausea, severe headaches, loss of motor or central nervous system control, dizziness, cramping and even vomiting.”
Your bodyweight (in pounds) x 0.5 = the number of ounces of water you should be drinking per day.
Visit hydracoach.com/calculation to get a more personalized benchmark for proper hydration based on your weight and activity levels.
The lesson? Knock down about half your bodyweight in ounces of water per day and adjust from there based on performance. But don’t do it all at once. Better to hydrate often — throughout the day and during activity — than to try to get it all in during one make-out session with a gallon water bottle.
WATER AND STRATEGY
In order to post stronger times, better round scores, etc., you already carefully manipulate warm-up, stretching, nutrition, sleep and any other number of variables. The last thing you want is to leave your whiteboard post at the mercy of the water fountain, so now it’s time to add hydration to your fitness strategic plan.
“Drinking during a WOD is a great stall tactic,” Katona says with a laugh. “If it’s not really hot outside and you’re in fairly good condition, you will most likely not need to take a drink in the middle of a 15- or 20-minute met-con type of workout. The key here is to prepare. Hydrating before and after will often affect what happens during.”
If you absolutely must have water, then take it. But, Katona cautions, frequenting the water fountain midworkout may speak to your preparation and dedication. “During a CrossFit WOD, it really depends on the workload requirement and the length of the workout,” he says. “But here is what is more important to gauge: Even if it’s only a 12-minute AMRAP, you need to look at the totality of the session. If you’re coming into a class in the afternoon and it’s been hot out, then that’s a different story. When you add in a warm-up, some skill, then the workout, that might be a 45-minute or more session, so don’t just look at the actual WOD time; look at the dynamic factors around the structure of the session. So, in this case, a little water as you walk in or topping off may be OK. It’s all based on hydration levels when you get there.”
Have you had enough H2O? Here’s how to tell whether you’re losing water too quickly.
“Thirst is usually the first indicator,” says Doug Katona, managing partner and head coach for CrossFit Endurance (crossfitendurance.com), but by then you’re already dehydrated. “Headaches and dry lips can also be quick indicators. After that, I watch closely for an athlete getting chills or being nauseous. Here is what’s important for CrossFitters: Your cognition and motor skills are affected when you are dehydrated. So you will move load slower, and those 10 GPP (general physical preparedness) skills we all talk about start to decline rapidly. For those of you who are coaches, you need to communicate with and get to know your athletes so you can address hydration needs before it affects how they perform. Remember, too, that postworkout hydration is important — not just in that first 90-minute window but also over the course of the next 24 hours and then daily. If you did a competition or were in a longer endurance event, your body can still go downhill if you are not hydrated properly.”
FOOD, FLUIDS AND OPTIONS
It may seem obvious in black and white on the page, but it can be easy to forget that the water dispenser at your box and that plastic bottle you carry with you everywhere aren’t the only things that contain water. Food is an overlooked well.
“Veggies like broccoli and spinach are generally over 90 percent water and are very nutrient-dense,” Katona says. “Cucumber, celery and iceberg lettuce are also high in water, but they lack a good nutrient return. And although the CrossFit community knows that excessive fruit consumption may not be always the route to go, certain fruits like grapefruit, apples and blueberries are very high in water.”
Some of the body’s fluids will come from foods, but that doesn’t negate the necessity of drinking. And yes, there is such a thing as clean hydration. “Basically, plain water that is pure and has a high pH (like a 9) is your best choice, balanced with the right amount of electrolytes,” Katona says. “I don’t allow my athletes to drink waters that are sweetened, artificially or otherwise. I like AquaHydrate water, but there are others out there, too. Just do your research.”
And don’t you dare consider complaining when your adequate hydration levels result in [many] more trips to the restroom. “If you had a choice, would you rather urinate a few more times each day or cramp up and detonate on a workout?” Katona asks. “All smart athletes address hydration. Hydration is a controllable factor that can only help you in your training goals.” In other words, suck it up.
Knowing all there is to know about proper hydration isn’t as sexy as learning better strategies to get through a “Hero” workout or getting tips on how to perfect your Olympic lifts, but it is a vitally important skill, particularly for athletes who are serious aboutgetting better each time they set foot in the gym.
“My best advice is to think of hydration as a skill or technique,” Katona says. “It’s science. Hydration levels affect how fast you run, how much you lift and how you recover. Spend the time dialing in your formula with the backdrop of the fundamentals of hydration that we have discussed here. I have a lot of my CrossFit Games athletes monitor hydration levels through the year. It’s an ongoing process and a formula that has to be carefully figured out.”
As Katona says, hydration for performance is a skill that requires daily practice. Perhaps you haven’t realized it until now, but tomorrow’s PR starts with today’s water intake.
Doug Katona is managing partner and head coach for CrossFit Endurance (crossfitendurance.com). He coaches several CrossFit Games athletes and has written numerous articles on endurance and strength and conditioning. He has served as an NFL athletic training consultant and is also a Category 2 cyclist.