Water and Combat

I’ve been thinking a lot about hydration and combat recently.  Why do we do what we do?

I’ve found there to be a few main fighters stay hydrated in our area.

  • There’s the fighter who comes to the tourney, fights, has a bit of water from the water bearers if he’s thirsty
  • There’s the fighter who comes with their own water and drinks as needed
  • There’s the fighter who pre-drinks as much as he can and then drinks occasionally
  • There’s the fighter who doesn’t drink until the tournament is over

The way I try to work is to drink as much water as I can the day before, and then day of drink as needed.  It’s a system that has worked well so far, and is heavily influenced by Viscount Savaric’s methods.

If we were to believe the beverage industry we’d drink three different kinds of energy drink or Gatorade throughout the day as much as we can.

I decided I’d like to know more.  So I started reading Waterlogged by Dr. Tim Noakes.  It’s an interesting read.  It focuses on endurance running – marathon primarily – but I think that it can apply to fencing as well.  It may not be as much of an endurance sport as a marathon but it still takes a lot out of us in sweat.

Some things I’ve learned:

(before we get into this please note that I’m assuming a fighter is healthy to start with)

Humans are endurance animals.  We evolved to be “long-distance runners especially well adapted to run in extreme dry heat… while drinking infrequently”.  What that means for fencing is that we are designed to be able to fight in the sun for long periods of time.  This is harder for the more out of shape fencers, but the body still knows how to take care of itself.  Which brings us to the next point.

Humans can postpone thirst while active until a more convenient time.  If we need to we can go all day without drinking water.  That doesn’t mean it’s best for us, but our bodies can do it.  It’s why we don’t spend long portions of time at a watering hole like other animals.

When marathon athletes restrict their drinking of water or drink as they feel thirsty there is no negative outcome.  None.  You get a little dehydrated during exercise, you finish exercising, eat something, drink something, and your body is fine.  The myth that dehydration is some horrible evil is false.  The sports drink industry uses poorly interpreted studies to muddy the definition and symptoms of dehydration.  Dehydration isn’t bad, it’s just a decrease in the amount of water in a body.  Something else to remember is that despite what you may have heard, the only major symptom of dehydration is thirst.  If you’re not thirsty you’re not dehydrated.

When a fighter is off the field and is dizzy or nauseous but isn’t thirsty then dehydration isn’t the issue.  It’s more likely a blood flow to the upper body issue.  Get them laying down flat and elevate their feet.  Depending on how much they’ve been drinking forcing them to drink when they’re not thirsty could cause other major health issues.

Dangerous medical issues can occur from over drinking, but in order for there to be an issue from dehydration you need to be dehydrated for several days.  It would be almost impossible for a fighter in the SCA to become dehydrated enough to warrant actual medical attention.  When your body is becoming dangerously dehydrated (over 7-8% body weight lost) you won’t be able to think about anything but getting some water.  The exception here is if the fighter is an extremely highly trained athlete, in which case the danger zone is apparently higher, and again when they hit the danger zone their body will not let them think of anything but getting a drink.

Weight in motion generates heat.  The more you weigh the more your body needs to work on temperature regulation, especially on a hot day. Fluid intake has almost nothing to do with body temperature.  As long as you are not heavily dehydrated your body will keep at it’s job of keeping you cool.

“Drinking to the dictate of thirst” improves people’s performance in running.  Your body knows what it needs. Drinking ahead of thirst is poppycock fed to us by the beverage industry.  When you need water you will get thirsty.  You can ignore it (and that way could lie an issue better dealt with by someone with much more experience than I), but if you start feeling thirsty drink.  If you don’t feel thirsty at all then you don’t need to.

When your body needs salt it makes you crave salt.  But these days we generally get more than enough salt through our foods.  Also, there is no evidence that long durations of exercise create a salt deficiency.  Your body has a store of sodium and it uses it as needed.  Adding extra salt during exercise does nothing. Sodium in fluid does not affect fluid absorption.  In fact the pancreas adds sodium to the fluid, and the resulting fluid has no difference regardless of if it had high sodium or no sodium to start with.  Carbs however do aid in fluid absorption.  If you’re drinking a zero-carb “energy drink” you’re probably better off with water.  Or you could just eat a pickle or a few pretzels or an orange slice with your water.

And finally regardless of what Gatorade claims, dehydration does not cause heatstroke.  The two frequently occur in the same cases but Correlation does not imply causation.

My thoughts on drinking while fighting:

Ensuring that your body has enough water to keep functioning is important.  I still stand by Viscount Savaric’s method of drinking a lot the day before.  Not to where you can’t possibly drink any more, but just an extra couple glasses of water.

Also, water.  I have yet to find any proof that there is anything more effective than water.  Carbs may help with water absorption, which I think means that remembering to eat the morning of a tournament is important.  But it doesn’t mean we should all be drinking sugar water.  The classic tourney foods of pickles, oranges, and pretzels combined with plain water seems like a better plan than sugary sports beverages.

Water during combat shouldn’t be to as much as you can stand.  That will probably slow you down.  Instead if your body prompts you to have a drink, do.  If your body doesn’t prompt you to drink, don’t.

Not everyone will need water during a tournament, but most will.  Remember that part about heavier bodies in motion generating more heat.  The SCA has a high percentage of overweight fighters.  I don’t mean they’re obese, I mean they’re carrying a few extra pounds.  Those extra pounds will increase their heat generated which will make them sweat more.  Again, your body will tell you when it’s time to drink.

Luckily we don’t have the problem of over drinking that marathons are starting to.  But we need to remember that the body isn’t stupid.  If you need something it will tell you to go get it.

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