Most ski racers, regardless of age, know to stay hydrated, especially because alpine ski racing often takes place at high elevations and at low humidity levels – that’s part of being outside on a mountain or in an artificially heated environment when we’re inside. As aging athletes, adult skiers need to drink even more, though simply guzzling gallons of water won’t necessarily help you win races. Here are some things you need to know about fluid needs and ski racing:

What is high elevation? 

The International Society for Mountain Medicine defines “high altitude” as 5,000 feet to 11,500 feet above sea level. If you compete in the Northeast, you don’t need to deal with elevation’s impact on hydration. But if you’re in the Rockies or Sierra Nevadas, it’s a factor regardless of your age.

At elevations around 5,000 feet, the humidity is generally lower. Sweat evaporates quicker. You also breathe faster and more deeply, causing more water loss through respiration. What’s more, your thirst response can be blunted, and you may feel the urge to urinate more often. To counter these effects, the Institute for Altitude Medicine recommends drinking an extra one to 1 1/2 liters of water per day. If your urine is clear, you’re hydrated. If it’s straw-colored or darker, drink more! 

How your body balances fluid levels. 

If you’re over age 40 and thinking, “I already pee more, which has nothing to do with elevation,” you’re experiencing one of the biological changes in an aging athlete. It’s an important consideration when it comes to performance on the slopes. Hopefully, there’s a rest room near the race course, as the best practice is to drink more!

According to the article, "Water, Hydration and Health" by Barry M. Popkin, Kristen E. D’Anci and Irwin H. Rosenberg, at the cellular level, a water deficit causes cells to shrink, which activates two types of sensors in the brain – one controlling thirst and the other urine excretion. The brain tells the kidneys to produce smaller amounts of concentrated urine, and you feel thirsty. When the body has plenty of fluids, the opposite occurs.

When you’re dehydrated, it takes more energy for the kidneys to concentrate urine – energy that could be going toward carving faster turns – and it wears on kidney tissues, another energy suck, as those tissues need to be repaired by the body. Even at a mild level of dehydration, if you exert yourself physically your performance will be lower, particularly your endurance. While endurance may not be so important to ski racing, you’ll also fatigue quicker, have more trouble staying warm and feel less fired up to go fast.

Gatorade or plain water? 

Research also shows the same brain receptors that trigger thirst also increase the urge to ingest salt, which explains why, if you’re dehydrated, you gravitate toward beverages rich in sodium, potassium and other electrolytes. This is especially true as we get older.

According to Pamela Nisevich, MS RD LD ("Nutrition Needs of Senior Athletes"), aging causes physiological changes to our fluids and electrolyte status. We experience a natural decrease in renal function, hence frequent trips to the bathroom, and a lower and delayed thirst sensation, which increases the odds of dehydration compared to younger athletes. In other words, that old saying “if you start to feel thirsty, it’s too late,” is even more true for adult racers.

To stay properly hydrated, Nisevich says to start drinking lots of fluids 24 hours prior to training or competition, with a 14 to 22-ounce chug a couple hours before starting a training session or a race. Once you’re on the hill, she suggests downing another 16 to 24 ounces for each pound you sweat out. And if you drink coffee or other diuretics, which increase the outflow of electrolytes as well as water, a sport drink is a good idea.

The Hydration – Performance Equation. 

Proper hydration certainly equates with high performance in ski racing. Just a two percent decrease in your hydration level adversely affects your mental and physical abilities. Your body has to work harder, which increases your core temperature (making your extremities colder) and burns muscle glucose at a higher rate (making your legs burn sooner). You’re also more susceptible to muscle cramps. But if you arrive at a NASTAR race well hydrated and you drain a water bottle after every race run, you’ll stay fast.

About the author:

Lisa Densmore Ballard has garnered close to 100 masters national titles and four world masters titles since 1991. This long-time coach, racer and member of the U.S. Alpine Masters Team also chairs USSA's Masters Committee.