Too much of a good thing?

I’m a big podcast nerd with a taste for podcasts that are about the outdoors, running, and science. Even before I started running I got hooked on URP because my husband would listen to it in the car, and I got hooked on all the stories of athletes who set out to accomplish unimaginable goals.

Podcasts I listen to regularly include:

Sometimes I get a little behind on my podcast listening, especially now that I’m working from home and don’t have a daily commute. For example, I just listened to the Outside Podcast that came out two weeks ago on May 30th, called Drinking Yourself to Death. Outside Magazine has been experimenting with their format, and this is my favorite kind of episode- a Science of Survival episode. The episode explores what happens when you drink TOO much water.

I think we’re all familiar with the dangers of dehydration. This episode examines what happens when you err on the side of drinking too much water, a condition called hyponatremia. When you drink too many fluids, your sodium levels can dip dangerously low and cause symptoms like:

  • Nausea
  • Puking
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches and confusion
  • Cramps and spasms
  • Seizures

You may notice that many of these symptoms are the same ones you’ll experience if you’re dehydrated, which can get confusing when you’re out on a run.

What caught my attention and made me think about posting about hyponatremia on this blog, was that Outside’s podcasters said that slow, endurance athletes, like runners who finish a marathon in 5+ hours, are more likely to over-hydrate and suffer the consequences.

It makes sense; the longer you’re out there, the more you’re going to sweat and the more fluids you’re going to drink, which throws your sodium levels out of whack. Of course, when you’ve been pushing yourself for hours and sweating like crazy, you might think you’re dehydrated if you start feeling nauseated and crampy, so you drink more water, which only makes the problem worse.

glacier

I’ve had my own mild encounters with dehydration and hyponatremia when I’ve been on on the trails. Before I visited Glacier National Park, I got a new pack and my first bladder. I’d never sipped water from a Camelbak or Platypus before, and it did not come naturally to me. Undaunted, I headed out an 11.4 mile hike along the Highline Trail with a full bladder, trail mix, and my (now ex-) boyfriend. I’d never hiked that far before, and I was worried about running out of water. I had trouble judging how much water was left in my bag since I couldn’t see it, and I wasn’t getting much out of every sip I did take because I couldn’t figure out how to suck water out of a tube that I had to bite down on. By the end of a very long day on the trail, I was more dehydrated than I have ever been before. I had cramps and nausea. I was overly emotional and disoriented, and my vision was starting to get blurry. Around that time, my ex finally realized what was going on, and we got it sorted out and headed back to camp.

brokentop

A couple of years later I climbed a mountain called Broken Top in Oregon. I think it was around 14 miles round trip, and I was determined not to make the same mistake I made at Glacier. In addition to a full bladder, I brought a water bottle which I filled using the water in my pack so that I could monitor my intake. I drank every time we stopped to catch our breath, and every time I felt sweaty or overheated. I actually did run low on water, and I filled my bottle at a creek along the way (we had a SteriPEN with us). A few hours in I was nauseous, headachey, and cramping. I also had to stop to pee behind bushes and rocks constantly. After my my hiking companion encouraged me to drink less and increase my salt intake, I did manage to reach the summit and make it all the way back to the car. In hindsight, it’s easy to see I was over-hydrating.

Luckily, both of these incidents were mild, and I didn’t do any serious damage, but they did teach me a lot about hydration and exertion. When you’re slow and stubborn, you can’t necessarily follow the same guidelines that apply to an elite athlete who is on a course for a much shorter amount of time. Now I bring gels and other nutritional supplements with me to help maintain my sodium levels. When both of these experiences occurred, I was trying something new and pushing myself in ways I hadn’t before. Now that I have more experience, I also know how my body usually feels when I’m exerting myself for a long time, and what feels normal for me. That makes it easier to recalibrate when I start to feel off.

The Outside podcast had some other good tips for how to prevent hyponatremia and dehydration, and it includes some fascinating research and stories. I recommend giving it a listen.

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