Race Day Water Management

Adequate water intake is crucial in an adventure race. Dehydration can set in very quickly after a race starts if you don't drink enough water, especially considering the fact that many sprint races are held near the hottest part of the year. You should be sipping on water constantly during a race, especially in the early stages.

How Much Water to Bring?

I find that I require approximately half a liter of water every hour in a race in order to stave off dehydration. This is really a minimum though, so if the day is very hot or the race is particularly strenuous then you will need more.

The amount of water you will need during a race is extremely variable based on a lot of factors. Note that I weigh 145 pounds and I find about 500 mL/hour to be a good hydration level for me. The bigger you are, the more water you will need! Also besides the obvious factors of heat and humidity, the course itself will influence how much water you will need. Running-heavy courses will demand more water.

In a sprint race you have some room for error as dehydration will not usually affect you much until about an hour after you have stopped drinking adequately. So considering how heavy water is the ideal situation is to drink plenty of water early in the race and run completely out of it about an hour before the race is over. Then you will save the weight of the water during the last part of the race and will finish only moderately dehydrated, a condition which shouldn't affect your performance much and is easily remedied at the race finish where there will be plenty of water to chug.

Of course those of you who are experienced adventure racers will realize how laughably idealistic it is to think that you will be able to precisely plan not only your water intake but the exact amount of time it will take you to finish the race. I realize this of course, but it's always good to have an ideal to strive for, and that is mine with respect to race water intake.

Realize you are playing with fire if you purposefully attempt to carry less water than you need to stay adequately hydrated. Severe dehydration is a life-threatening state and especially on a hot race day it can cause you to be at a much higher risk for heat stroke. Learn the warning signs that you are getting badly dehydrated and most importantly quit racing if you have them! No race result is worth risking your health or life for.

How to Judge if you are Drinking Enough

Drinking the exact right amount of water in a race is an ideal that is hardly ever achieved. Luckily our bodies are proficient at working through moderate dehydration without a large decrease in performance. Having said that, it should always be your goal to stay well hydrated for the entire race, excepting maybe the last hour or so. I will go further into the details of this strategy in the advanced water management page but for now suffice it to say that there is a scientific rationale behind this thinking.

During a race your hydration level will need constant monitoring. Ideally you will never become thirsty. Studies have shown over and over that when you become thirsty you are already dehydrated, and this is especially true when in a race situation because your fight-or-flight response (hopefully more flight than fight in this case) will be activated which will suppress your hunger and thirst. So instead of waiting until your body cues you to drink more, you should just be sipping your beverage constantly during the race. Of course usually you'll just plain forget to do that because you're caught up in the race. So here are some things you need to be on the lookout for that indicate that you are not drinking enough water.

  • Your mouth is dry.
  • You have a headache.
  • You feel light-headed or fuzzy.
  • Your urine is very dark colored or you haven't peed for over 3 hours.
  • Your muscles are cramping.
  • You notice that halfway through the race you still have more than half of your water left.

A note about cramping. For those of you who've never experienced a muscle cramp, it's basically an involuntary contraction of muscle that does not relax. It's painful and usually a dead giveaway that you are dehydrated and/or low on electrolytes. Often you will have some warning signs in your muscles before a full-on cramp immobilizes you. Personally I usually experience a quick spasm or two before I get a full cramp. If I act quickly and replenish water and electrolytes after that first spasm then usually the cramp will never come. Listen to your body!

How to Carry Your Water

There are a few schools of thought on how to carry water. Some people use hydration reservoirs/water bladders which usually go inside your pack and allow you to suck water from a tube. Some use good old fashioned water bottles that attach to the outside of their pack in some way. One method I've used with some success is actually having my teammate carry my water and me carry his water. It's easier to get water off someone else's pack than your own unless you have the bottle attached to the front of your pack straps somehow.

In a sprint race I would always recommend using a hydration reservoir or water bladder of some sort over carrying it around in bottles. These are a huge plus in adventure racing because every time you take a sip, you save the time of having to mess with the cap of your water bottle. Having to get out a water bottle and unscrew its lid may not seem like much effort when going for a leisurely walk, but I guarantee it will be a huge pain in the ass and time waster during an adventure race. The only disadvantage of a hydration reservoir is that they are a bit of a pain to refill depending on the design of the reservoir and your pack. But in a sprint race you should avoid refilling a reservoir if at all possible. If you are planning on refilling water at some point during the race, then do so by grabbing a water bottle or two rather than messing with the bladder.

The exception to the reservoir strategy is during the biking leg - in which you are often better off having prefilled your bike water bottle before the race. This is water that you get to drink during the race but that you don't have to carry around with you the entire time - a huge bonus! Put some kind of sports drink in your bike water bottle since they are heavier but you won't notice it as much on the bike as on foot.

Not only do you need to replenish your water during a race, you need to replenish your electrolytes just as much!