Tim Noakes is chief of the exercise and sports science department at Cape Town University, as well as a founding member of the International Olympic Committee's Olympic Science Academy and a fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine. On top of that, he is an accomplished distance runner, having competed in dozens of marathons and ultramarathons.
In Professor Noakes’ 2012 book, Waterlogged, he details the world’s fear of dehydration, which has developed over the past 40 years, thanks in large part to savvy marketing tactics. For at least the first 75 years of marathon running, from the time it became an Olympic sport in 1896 through the 1970’s, runners were discouraged from drinking water while racing. Long-distance cyclists were advised similarly:
“Avoid drinking when racing, especially in hot weather. Drink as little as possible… When you drink too much you will perspire, and you will lose your strength.” (Fotheringham, 2002, p. 180).
It is interesting to note that the most rapid improvements in marathon race times occurred during the years from 1920 - 1970, a period in which runners were actively discouraged from drinking during races. However, in the mid-1970’s the world’s hydration philosophy began to shift. Most of us are probably familiar with the overhydration mantra. We’ve heard it in gym class, from little league coaches, from personal trainers, and on fitness websites: drink water before you’re thirsty, and consume plenty of fluids while training.
The thought process is simple. Fluids will help ward-off dehydration, which can lead to muscle cramps, heat sickness, and reduced athletic performance. So, when this dramatic shift in training philosophy took hold, you would expect it to have had a profound impact on athletes’ results.
Well, unfortunately it didn’t. The sudden increase in water consumption was not associated with any sudden increase in world-record performances. In fact, marathon times began to plateau. This is not to suggest that overhydration was the cause, but it is interesting to point out that such a sudden change in philosophy did not seem to have any immediate, notable impact in these marathon times.
So if the recommendation to increase an athlete’s hydration level did not lead to a significant increase in performance, why did the new philosophy gain such a foothold? Professor Noakes believes it was due to scare tactics and savvy marketing campaigns from the beverage industry. In an interview with the Military Times, Professor Noakes explained:
"We don't need to be told when to drink — our bodies will tell us. That's where we're falling down a lot. My argument is that dehydration is a nondisease created in order to sell a product."
In a subsequent writing, Noakes elaborated: “Over the past 40 years, humans have been misled — mainly by the marketing departments of companies selling sports drinks — to believe that they need to drink to be optimally hydrated.”
According to Noakes, humans (like all other species) have been finely tuned over thousands of years of evolution to know exactly when to drink. This is the whole point of feeling thirsty. But, in an effort to sell more product, beverage companies did their best to discredit this evolutionary trait.
In the next post, we will show how the 1970’s spike in marathon participation lead to the hydration theory that most of us know today: drink early and drink often.