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Digital Running Club » Ask the Experts, Columns » Hydrating Before a Race

Hydrating Before a Race

I’m working on getting my half marathon time down. I do my best to hydrate before my races, but I always seem to have to pee during the race. I fear I’m losing more time standing at the port-a-potty than I would if I were dehydrated! What’s the best hydration strategy?

Kim F. Jacksonville, FL

You wouldn’t think that hydration would be such a big problem for runners. After all, “drink lots of water” is not a difficult command to follow. The long lines in the first few miles of any major marathon tell a different story, though.

Hydration is a more gradual process than most people think. Most tend to start hydrating just hours before their event, but the best way to go is to hydrate by sipping water all day. If you’re not normally a big water drinker, then start drinking water several hours before your event. Stop drinking about 2 hours before the start. You’ll probably continue frequently urinating for the next hour and a half or so (especially because you’ll be getting nervous). Just before the start (or at the first water station), take a quick drink. You should be plenty hydrated. Replenish your fluids as needed during the race, but you shouldn’t need to stop at every water station unless they are very infrequent or it’s an abnormally hot day.

Practice this hydration method before your training runs and you’ll get a better idea of how much you’ll need to hydrate during the actual race. Dehydration is a dangerous condition that can certainly rob you of your performance and worse. Recently, however, the deaths of a few marathon participants have brought attention to another condition called hyponatremia. Hyponatremia occurs when the ratio of water to sodium in the body is very high. When you sweat, you lose water and sodium. Under these conditions, overhydrating with water causes an imbalance that results in swelling of all the body’s cells. Most cells can handle the swelling, but the brain cells are particularly vulnerable. Swelling in the brain results in a headache, nausea, confusion and a host of other dangerous symptoms.

As a general rule, hydrate with water in small doses over time and consume 1 cup of electrolyte replacement drink for every 2 cups of water during your race. Keep in mind that if you’re also consuming energy gels during your race, these may also provide the electrolytes you need.

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Brian Darrow is a running coach in St. Petersburg, FL who specializes in online coaching for beginners. Follow him at

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