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Don’t Drink

September 14, 2011

By Brianne Harrison Moore

The most dedicated runners won’t allow the heat of late summer to slow them down—most likely they’ll just stock up on some extra water before they head out for a jog. They might want to rethink those extra bottles, though: a survey of runners by researchers from Loyal University’s Health System found that nearly half of recreational runners may be drinking too much during a race, putting themselves at risk of a potentially fatal condition.

The researchers surveyed 197 runners who competed in the 2009 Westchester, II. Veterans Day 10 K and 5K runs, as well as two other runs in Chicago. The 91 male runners had been running for an average of 13 years; the 106 women had been running an average of 8.3 years.

Experts recommend runners drink only when thirsty, but the Loyola survey found that more than a third of runners drink to maintain a certain body weight or to adhere to a preset schedule, and just under 9 percent drink as much as possible. Almost 30 percent of runners incorrectly believe they need to ingest extra salt while running, and nearly 60 percent claim they drink sports drinks because the drinks have electrolytes that prevent low blood sodium. The primary cause of low sodium in runners is actually drinking too much water or sports drinks.

Overindulging in water or other fluids while running can cause exercise-associated hyponatremia, in which the sodium content of the blood is diluted to abnormally low levels. This condition can lead to confusion, agitation, seizures, and even death. There have been 12 documented and eight suspected runners’ deaths from hyponatremia in recent years.

The researchers believe increased advertising of sports drinks may play a role in runners’ tendency to drink too much. Many of the ads warned about the dangers of dehydration and recommend runners drink as much as 1.2 liters an hour. Although most drink manufacturers have ceased promoting overdrinking, the unscientific beliefs they promoted remain.

“We have been trained to believe that dehydration is a complication of endurance exercise,: says Lara Dugas, PhD, a co-author of the study. “But in fact, the normal physicological response to exercise is to lose a small amount of fluid. Runners should expect to lose several pounds during runs and not be alarmed.”

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