How dehydration affects your riding ability
Considering the human body is made up of 40%-75% of water mass, hydration is absolutely key & whilst we are enjoying temperatures of up to 26 degrees in the UK right now I thought what better time to write about hydration!
A horse's body is made up of 70% water & it is researched that a 500kg horse would consume a whopping 25 litres of water a day! The amount of water a horse drinks is influenced largely by their forage type & activity level as well as the heat. If a horse becomes dehydrated they could suffer from colic, dehydration, overheating & in the worst-case scenario death.
When you consider how much water your horse is consuming it is important to stop & think about yourself. Pre & post cross country especially at a three-day competition we will make sure the horse has small sips of water continuously so he is fully hydrated & then whilst he is cooling off he can start to rehydrate & recover yet I bet most of us just grab a can of coke & think that will do for us post-ride!
Often post cross country or after a long day at an event riders may find they have a big energy drop or a sugar crash as they haven’t fuelled their bodies with any glucose or water all day to keep them going. The shakes are a normal symptom of a sugar crash sadly! Staying hydrated is key to keep your body functioning especially in the heat; the last thing you want to be suffering with is heat stroke or feeling faint at a show or pre cross country.
The amount of water we store is determined by the fluid we consume & how much adipose tissue (body fat) we hold. If we have a higher fat mass then less water is stored in the body. Someone with less fat mass & more lean mass will hold more water than those with higher levels of body fat.
10% of water is stored in adipose tissue whilst 80% of water is stored in our muscles. Much of the water stored in the body is in our blood plasma. Water composes 83% of the body’s blood, 75% of the brain, 75% of your muscle mass & accounts for 22% of your bones. Water helps the body to regulate its internal temperature, acts as a shock absorber for the brain & spinal cord, helps deliver oxygen around the body & supports optimal movement & function. Considering the main structure of body tissue & organs are made up of water, hydration is absolutely key if you want your body functioning to its best ability.
Many riders suffer with lower back pain & most would not consider the correlation between dehydration & back pain. As mentioned, water helps the spinal cord to act as a shock absorber. The vertebral discs in our back are made up of a soft, jelly-like substance which is composed largely of water. If you become dehydrated these discs will not be cushioning your movement as they are designed to & this can be the cause of many back pain issues amongst riders!
Water acts as a transporter in the body flushing out waste products & transporting nutrients around your body. The human body is in a constant fluid balance; water intake versus water loss. You will have fluctuations in your water mass & these fluctuations are completely normal dependent on the water you consume & water you expend through exertion, sweat & urine. Sweat regulates the body’s temperature & therefore the water lost. It is believed that 75% of the energy expended in a workout is purely down to heat loss!
An individual's physiology dictates your sweat amounts so everyone will be different & the amount of water retained or lost will vary between each rider. Fitter individuals tend to sweat more & more sweating occurs earlier compared to a less fit individual. This happens as an adaptation to training & is the body’s way of efficiently regulating body temperature.
Dehydration has been shown to have huge impacts on exercise performance in various sports. If the fluid loss becomes greater than the fluid intake, the body then becomes hypo-hydrated which impacts its ability to function optimally.
Blood plays an essential role in exercise & its main role is to dissipate heat through the skin. When you are then dehydrated this process is reduced therefore causing an increase in the body’s temperature which can contribute to additional strain on the heart as the body tries to process the rising temperature & dissipate the heat.
Exercising or riding in a dehydrated state will increase your exertion & RPE (rate of perceived exertion; basically how hard the activity feels) which will make the exercise feel harder than it actually is reducing the capacity & intensity you are able to work or train at ultimately leading to premature fatigue in your performance.
Slight dehydration does not affect performance & is a normal side effect of exercise, riding & training however after losing 2% of your bodyweight this is then classed as being 2% dehydrated & performance may well then be impacted & your cognitive function; the ability to make decisions in particular will be affected. This can have a huge impact on team sports & if you think about going cross country a huge amount of time around the course will be spent making crucial decisions so you want your cognitive function at its absolute best! Delayed reactions coming into a tricky combination 3 from home is not going to be useful in eventing or trying to tackle someone in a polo game!
If you further become 4% dehydrated this is marked as an increase for the body to perform more demanding muscular work. Your blood becomes thicker as you become more dehydrated due to the reduction in blood plasma levels so the thicker blood is now harder to pump around the body leading to the heart being made to work harder to pump the blood around & in turn this elevates your heart rate which makes it hard for the body to then remove waste products such as lactic acid. 10% dehydration can be fatal for the human body.
So how do you track & monitor your hydration levels?
The easiest & most practical way is to judge your hydration by the colour of your pee. It may sound a little old school but when you’re at an event or running around all day it is the most convenient & practical method for you to monitor adequate hydration levels. Most athletes in high-performing sports would consider their fluid intake during their session or workout & the fluid lost in sweat which then allows you to calculate the total urine lost & from here you can come up with an appropriate hydration strategy to keep said athlete adequately hydrated.
For most riders just focusing on consuming water regularly throughout the day & having a rehydration strategy post competition or riding, especially in this heat would be sufficient. Fluids that contain electrolytes will assist in maintaining the blood plasma volume & they help to aid the absorption of water in the gut more so than to replace electrolytes lost in sweat. The sodium in the electrolytes increases absorption of water in the gut & bloodstream helping to maintain water retention & you may find the sodium also increases the want to drink promoting rehydration & this is where using an isotonic drink such as Lucozade or Gatorade can be beneficial.
Isotonic drinks that contain 4-9g of carbohydrates per 100ml have been shown to give faster absorption from the gut compared to water alone, therefore, leading to quicker rehydration & they are also useful as an energy source due to the carbohydrate content. Fluids containing electrolytes will be best to use to rehydrate as they maintain the blood plasma volume as previously mentioned. For most riders, water will be adequate for recovery & rehydration as sodium can be consumed throughout the day through other food & drink that you consume but it may be an idea to add an isotonic drink to your recovery strategy.
It is important to consider your hydration levels & come up with a rehydration strategy on competition or training days so you can perform & ride to your absolute best. Hopefully, this helps you to understand why hydration & water intake is so key to the human body & how something as simple as dehydration can hugely impact your riding & ability to perform well!