Over-Hydration in Student Athletes

Information is everywhere right now about the dangers of heat exhaustion in high school athletes.  After all, football players are training long hours in full gear during the hottest part of the summer.  But what about the often overlooked threat of overhydrating, which can be equally life threatening.

Yesterday, a 17-year old high school football player in Georgia died as a result of drinking too many liquids during practice.   According to news reports, the teenager drank 2-gallons of water followed by 2-gallons of Gatorade.  The excess liquid in his body caused massive brain swelling, which ultimately led to his death.

Over-hydration occurs when a person takes in more fluid than the body can excrete, causing sodium in the body to become dangerously low.

The early symptoms of over-hydration include:

  • nausea and vomiting
  • headache
  • confusion or disorientation

More severe symptoms include:

  • muscle weakness, spasms or cramps
  • seizures
  • unconsciousness
  • coma

How much should you drink? 

Student athletes are constantly being reminded to drink enough water.  So how do they know when they’ve had enough?   Typically, individuals should avoid drinking more than one liter of fluid per hour, as it takes one hour for one liter of fluid to leave the gut.  According to training-conditioning.com, football athletes should follow this general guideline (remember that the fluids should be drunk over a period of time, not all at once):

  • Drink 16 ounces (2 cups) of a sports drink one hour before exercise
  • Drink 20-40 ounces (2-1/2 to 5 cups) of fluid per hour of practice
  • Drink 16-24 ounces (2 to 3 cups) of fluid for every pound of body weight lost during exercise (Ideally, players should weigh themselves before and after practice to know how much weight they lost and how much they should drink to make up for that weight loss)

It’s a balancing act between getting enough fluid without getting too much.  Generally, it depends on how much and what type of exercise a person is doing, how hot it is outside and how much a person is sweating, urine color and body weight.  As always, if you experience any of the above symptoms you should stop exercise immediately and get medical help.