The dog days of summer are here. With them come hot, humid weather and the perfect time for outdoor activities, summer sports and for fall sports conditioning.

But athletes beware! Hope for fun summer sports and conditioning activities can quickly evaporate in the hot summer sun if athletes do not properly hydrate themselves before, during and after a workout. Without proper hydration, the body can lose water and essential elements and run the risk of kidney problems or even death.

To help athletes avoid the risks of dehydration, physicians at the University of Michigan Health System’s MedSport are advising summer athletes to drink large amounts of water during their workouts, know and recognize the signs of dehydration, and begin to prepare their body for its heavy summer fluid needs by drinking extra water during cooler times of the year.

“Athletes can get seriously dehydrated especially during the warm summer months and also in August when the intensity of the workouts seem to increase prior to playing fall sports,” says Edward Wojtys, M.D., professor, Department of Surgery, and director, Sports Medicine. “If you do enough work in any type of weather you can get dehydrated, but when temperatures are in excess of 75 or 80 degrees and humidity is in the same range, it’s easier to become seriously dehydrated.”

The key, Wojtys says, is to prevent dehydration before it even begins by drinking plenty of fluids before, during and after any workout. But in any case, athletes also should be aware of what are and are not signs of dehydration.

Although thirst may seem like it would be a sign of dehydration, Wojtys says it may not always be the case. That lack of a thirsty feeling, in fact, poses a greater problem because it is a time when the body needs fluid the most.

But when the body does need fluids, there are other signs as well. The true signs of dehydration include an uneasy feeling and a noticeable decrease in energy and performance levels. Some athletes also may develop a headache and feel achy if their body is running low on fluids.

If those fluids are not replenished at the first signs of dehydration, the body temperature can rise causing its cooling mechanism, perspiration, to slow down or stop and the athlete to pass out. If this occurs, the athlete should be taken off the field and evaluated by a trainer or a physician immediately, says Wojtys.

“Once dehydration starts, the deterioration can be quick making it difficult to treat,” he says.

The best way to prevent that from happening is to continuously drink fluids throughout any workout, especially when heat and humidity are on the rise causing the athlete to sweat more and deplete the body of necessary fluids and salts.

That advice is particularly important for those young athletes who are working to lose weight before their sports season starts through physical conditioning and running. It’s important for those athletes to monitor their body weight before and after their workouts to avoid dehydration. Because much of that weight loss is fluid, and if it’s not properly replenished and the athlete continues to workout, it can be fatal, warns Wojtys.

“It’s not unusual for an athlete who’s 160 or 180 pounds to lose five or more pounds during a workout,” says Wojtys. “We would hope that by the next morning, after having an opportunity to drink fluids and eat a healthy dinner, that most of that weight would be regained. It’s the athlete who goes back out the next day and hasn’t regained that fluid who’s really placing himself at risk.

Coaches and parents of summer athletes also need to be aware of the dangers of dehydration and supply their athletes with plenty of fluids during games and workouts. Wojtys suggests that coaches provide several breaks every hour and remove any athlete from the field who is exhibiting signs of dehydration and who have nausea or have vomited.

“You can’t drink too much water when you’re young – your kidneys are designed to be able to handle that amount of fluid,” says Wojtys. “So, if anything, we should force fluids on young athletes and have them drink as much as possible.”

But drinking all of that extra fluid in the summer can sometimes make an athlete feel sluggish or bloated. So, Wojtys recommends building up that extra hydration during the cooler months, before they actually need them, to get used to the heavier fluid load.

And to stay hydrated before, during and after a workout, athletes should drink water or a balanced salt solution like Gatorade. A balanced salt solution will work to not only meet the body’s water requirements, but it will also provide it with the essential elements that are lost during perspiration.

But if a Gatorade-like substance is not available, Wojtys suggests drinking water instead and avoiding any type of soft drink or juice drink.

Although balanced salt solutions will replenish fluids and elements lost while working out, young athletes should not use salt tablets to achieve the same outcome. Facts about summer sports dehydration:

  • To prevent dehydration before it even begins, athletes should drink plenty of fluids before, during and after any workout.
  • Dehydration can occur when there is not enough fluid in the body to maintain kidney function, which can be potentially fatal, even for younger athletes.
  • Thirst is not a sign of dehydration. In fact, most athletes who are in a dehydrated state do not feel thirsty. True signs of dehydration include dizziness, headaches, body aches, and a decrease in energy and performance levels.
  • Water or a balanced salt solution, like Gatorade, work best to replace the fluids lost during a workout.
  • Coaches should provide young athletes with plenty of breaks to drink as much fluid as possible and watch for players exhibiting signs of dehydration.

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