Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Fri, 21 Jun 2002 08:49:06 -0400

Big Drinkers


Luanne Carl is convinced of the need to drink frequently and copiously on her long runs. "What do I do about getting water while training?" she wrote to me. "I don't want to carry a water bottle. Any other ideas?"

I confessed to not being a big drinker. I've never carried or worn a water bottle or a camel's-hump pack. Carrying cash for stops at machines or stores, and stopping at fountains or hoses is easier.

Seldom do I even feel the need for these impromptu aid stations. Yet I've never run into serious trouble from drinking too little.

A few times, though, I've suffered from taking too much water. The usual symptom has been late-race or post-race nausea, quickly eased by downing something salty.

Seeing runners with bottles bouncing and sloshing against their butts during their easiest cool-weather runs amuses me. But I can't judge them wrong and myself right. No one can be sure how much and how often a runner needs to drink.

Water stories spilled into the big publications this spring: New Yorker, Newsweek, Wall Street Journal. All made the same point: We've been oversold on the "8x8" plan -- the need to drink eight, eight-ounce glasses of water a day.

On a recent trip I happened to pick up a copy of the Wall Street Journal as the only free newspaper offered at an airport gate. It carried an article titled, "Why You're Drinking Too Much Water."

Betsy McKay wrote, "Bottled-water makers heavily market their products based on this [8x8] theory... But a growing number of health experts say the advice may not hold water. Researchers who have tried to pinpoint the origin of the eight-by-eight rule have come up dry."

McKay then quotes several medical authorities. The consensus is that the drinking "rule" is nothing but an averaging of extremes. Some of us need much more, while some can get by on far less.

Giving a fixed formula taps into a more-is-better mindset common to runners. We're tempted to think that if a certain amount is good, then doubling it must be twice as good. This happens with mileage and speed, so why not with 8x8 drinks?

Many runners force fluids. They worry about finding enough, or carrying enough, to drink during their runs. "Enough" can at times be too much.

"For most people the consequences of drinking too much are simply extra trips to the bathroom," wrote Besty McKay in the Wall Street Journal. "But for a few, excessive amounts can be harmful, even fatal."

I don't want to alarm you but only to remind you of a rare condition of hyponatremia, also known as "water intoxication." Overdrinking plain water can dilute the body's sodium to the point of serious consequences. (The nausea I've experienced a few times might be a mild form of this ailment, since salt relieves it.)

A Chicago doctor sued the Rock 'n' Roll Marathon after he suffered a post-race seizure that left him permanently impaired. He charged race officials with negligence in not supplying enough drinks.

Yet his own medical experts testified that he'd fallen victim to hyponatremia. It's usual cause, as you now know, is drinking TOO MUCH water.

I'm not suggesting that running and drinking don't mix. How can anyone speak against water? That's like being anti-air.

It's dumb, if not dangerous, to drink too little. But this brings up that tricky question, How can we know our true needs?

McKay wrote at the end of her article, "After much thought, nutritionists have come up with this guideline for determining hydration needs: Drink enough so you don't get thirsty."

Runners have been taught that thirst is an unreliable indicator of dehydration. But is it?

Thirst has evolved over the eons as a health and safety signal. It hasn't suddenly failed us.

As one soft-drink ad admonishes, "Obey your thirst." Tune in to your thirst and trust it to tell you when to drink and how much.

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