Drink Right or Else - Dangers for Distance Walkers

Dehydration and Hyponatremia are Both Dangers for Walkers

Brisk Walking
Brisk Walking. Robert Daly/OJO Images/Getty Images

Keeping enough fluids and salts in your body during a long distance walking event such as a marathon, a 20-miler, or a half-marathon is crucial to finishing feeling good. Getting hydration right can prevent spending time in the medical tent getting an IV or a scary trip to the emergency room. Don't end your race with a ride in the sag wagon or an ambulance - learn to drink right.


    The basic rule of thumb is to start a walk having had 16 oz. of water (a pint or half liter), and then replenishing with a cup of water every 15-20 minutes. That is about a water bottle-full an hour, about a half liter or pint. End your walk with a big glass of water. That may prevent dehydration - losing too much fluid from your body. Guidelines changed in 2003 to tell distance walkers and runners to drink as soon as thirsty.
    Drinking Guidelines for Distance Walkers and Runners

    Signs of dehydration: Dry mouth, fatigue, dizziness, stomach ache, back pain, headache, irritability, decreased urination.

    Hyponatremia (loss of sodium or body salt)

    Sweating removes both water and salts - electrolytes - from your body as you walk. Depending on the humidity, you may not notice how much you are sweating. For walks of over an hour, replenishing your electrolytes with sports drink is also important to prevent hyponatremia.

    It is recommended to drink 1 bottle of sports drink for every 2 bottles of water. Eating salty snacks such as pretzels during long walks is another source of salt. Some races just give you those little fast food salt packets to sprinkle on your tongue along with water. Guidelines as of 2003 emphasize not overdoing it on plain water, as some walkers drink more than the recommended water amount and flush out their body salts, ending up sick with hyponatremia.

    Do not overdrink at the end of you walk, either. Be sure to have salty snacks or sports drink after your walk.

    Signs of hyponatremia: nausea, headache, cramps, confusion, slurred speech, bloating and swollen hands.

    Getting Hydration Right

    Weigh yourself immediately before and immediately after a long walk. If you are getting dehydrated, your weight will drop from the loss of water. If you are losing body salt and drinking too much plain water without salt, you will gain weight. Keep records of what and how much you drank, sweat level, salt, etc. and adjust so you are not gaining or losing during the walk.

    Carrying It

    How do you carry along sports drink on a long training walk where you won't have any support? Assuming you have a source of water, buy the powdered sports drink mix and mix it with your water. It adds little weight and could keep you out of the emergency room.

    If the event or race provides water stops with sports drink and water, it is still essential to carry your own water and sports drink. You may become thirsty between water stops, and if you don't drink when thirsty, you are putting yourself in danger. Even well-run events may run out of cups, sports drink or water at the water stop you were relying upon.

    Faster and slower walkers may come upon stops not yet set up or already closed. Wise walkers always carry their own water and sports drink, just in case.

    Deadly Quotes

    Anne Thimm heard plenty of excuses for not drinking enough water and sports drink at the Breast Cancer 3-Day Walk. Walking 20 miles a day for three days in hot weather, those excuses could put you in the hospital. Here's her list and her comments on why this is deadly thinking:

    1. "I hate sports drinks! I won't drink them."
    If you don't drink them, you could easily become a victim of hyponatremia.

    While salty snacks are good, they are not a total substitute for the electrolytes in sports drinks. Mix sports drinks with water to whatever concentration you desire (most can tolerate half and half).

    2. "I walked the entire event last year and didn't drink any sports drinks."
    You were lucky, very lucky. This year, you might not be so lucky. More importantly, the person you are telling this to may think that they can also make it without sport drinks. Their metabolism is different from yours. They might not make it because you gave them this bad advice. This is not the type of testimonial that distance walkers should be giving out.

    3. "I need to drink something, but I only like purple (or orange, or green) sports drinks. This stop doesn't have my flavor. I'll wait for the next stop."
    Trust me, chances are that if you will only drink a certain flavor of sports drink, you won't find it anywhere on the walk. Don't plan on an assortment of every flavor of drink at every stop. Drink whatever is available.

    4. "There are no cold drinks at this stop. I'll wait until the next one."
    Don't wait, drink it even if it is warm. Pretend that you are in Paris and drinking warm drinks the European way - ooo-la-la!!!! Even if the bottles are warm, fill your personal water bottle with ice, water, and sports drink -yum! Odds are, if one stop is out of ice cold drinks, the next place might not have them either.

    5. "Sports drinks make me gag."
    Lack of sport drinks can may you go into seizures. Bring some powdered Kool-aid/Crystal Light to help cover the sports drink taste.

    6. "I'm on a diet, and I don't want the calories."
    You are on an intense endurance event, and you NEED the calories!
    Lewis G. Maharam, MD.FACSM (chair),Tamara Hew DPM, Arthur Siegel MD, Marv Adner, MD, Bruce Adams, MD and Pedro Pujol, MD, FACSM. "IMMDA’s Revised Fluid Recommendations for Runners and Walkers." IMMDA. 6 May 2006.

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