The Results Are In

October 1, 2018

 

Sweat testing can be a springboard for a comprehensive approach to hydration. Here’s a look at the next steps to take after the data is processed.

By David Stern

So, you’ve run the tests, and you have the results. Now what? Sweat testing analysis can provide lots of valuable information about an individual athlete’s hydration needs. But this information is useful only if you know what to do with it.

Fortunately, there are a number of strategies for interpreting the results, implementing fueling plans, and finding unique ways to supplement your hydration efforts. Combined, these measures will ensure you get the most value out of the data.

In this article, a strength coach, a dietitian, and an athletic trainer share their thoughts on ways to maximize sweat testing analysis. They are united in their goal to have athletes hydrated and performing optimally.

BREAKING DOWN RESULTS

While there is always a lot of data to consider with sweat testing analysis, Jake Cox, CSCS, Associate Director for Athletic Performance for the Baylor University football team, says that it can be a valuable tool for helping athletes train and perform their best. “We did sweat testing this summer, and it gives you a detailed report that specifies how much each player is losing and what they’re losing,” he says.

After gathering the data from sweat testing, the first step is to determine who is already fueling properly, who needs to make minor adjustments, and who needs a new specialized plan. “You get back all this data on a hundred different guys, but you realize that half of them might be just fine having a bottle of water here and there or carrying around a jug of water, either because they salt their foods enough or their genetic disposition allows them to retain needed nutrients,” says Cox. “And then we have guys that have a very high sweat rates that are just pumping out the electrolytes through their sweat and using up their body’s energy reserves. So you have the whole spectrum.”

Taking an individualized approach to fueling might seem like a daunting task when you’re working with an entire football team. But Cox believes that the sweat analysis data actually made his job easier, as it helped identify the specific players who had the most pressing fueling needs.

“Once you get the data, you’re probably looking at one third of your team that needs extra attention, so that 100 cuts down to maybe 30 detailed plans,” he says. “After that, you simply have to sit down with the players, talk to them about fueling, and set up a plan.”

Lindsay Langford, MS, RD, CSSD, Sports Dietitian with St. Vincent Sports Performance in Indianapolis, Indiana, believes it’s helpful to separate players into different categories, especially when working with a large team. “If you’re doing sweat testing for an entire team, I would recommend taking the data and classifying players into different groups depending on whether their sweat has a low sodium concentration, a moderate sodium concentration, or a high sodium concentration,” she says. “You should also take into consideration any previous history of muscle cramps or dehydration symptoms like head aches, muscle fatigue, and light heatedness.”

Then, you can use these categories as a guide when drawing up the individual fueling plans. “Athletes with a low sodium sweat concentration are typically fine with just a sports drink (like Gatorade® or Powerade®) or a water plus the electrolytes that they’re going to get from their food,” says Langford. “If they have a moderate sweat sodium concentration then they’re probably a candidate for a higher electrolyte supplementation or a more concentrated sports drink. And if they have a high sweat sodium concentration then I would definitely recommend using one of the higher sodium electrolyte supplements, such as The Right Stuff® (NASA-developed electrolyte drink additive)—that would be my main go-to supplement.”

PUTTING A PLAN TOGETHER

Once you have a handle on the sweat testing results, communicating with the athletes is essential to developing a comprehensive fueling plan. “I would meet with the players and show them the findings, and then I’d ask, ‘Does this correlate to things you’ve noticed in the past?’” Cox says. “Then, when we put together the fueling plan, I’d ask, ‘Is this what you can see working best for you?’ Asking good, open-ended questions like that allows them to really grasp what we’re trying to do and take ownership of it themselves. On top of that, you definitely have to keep preaching ownership and sticking with the structure that works for them as individuals.”

Lanny Bradford, MS, ATC, Associate Athletic Trainer at the University of Arizona, has found that education is key to getting athletes to buy into their fueling plans. “Some athletes buy in right away because they’ve had really bad prior experiences with cramping and dehydration, but for other athletes you really have to push the education,” he says. “That means constantly getting the message out about the importance of hydration, the right kind of hydration, and what they need to get themselves ready to play at a high level.”

Sometimes, that means clearing up any misconceptions. “A lot of athletes just hear ‘hydration, hydration, hydration’ and they simply drink a ton of water, but this can throw their balance off,” Bradford says. “They risk being hypo-hydrated or becoming hyponatremic (insufficient body sodium stores) because they don’t have the electrolytes in their system for the muscles to function properly.”

Helping athletes find the sports drinks and supplements that work best for them will help get buy-in and ensure athletes stick to their fueling plan even when coaches or athletic trainers aren’t around. “A lot of it is about finding the right mix for that person,” says Langford. “They may not like the sports drink that’s provided by their team, but they may be willing to invest in their own if it’s something that they really enjoy drinking. So you definitely have to help them adapt to their protocols and enjoy it, or at least be compliant with it.”

A fueling plan should go beyond hydration to include diet, as well. This is another area where misconceptions and misinformation can get in the way. “Food should be the first part of an athlete’s fueling plan,” says Langford. “I frequently recommend that athletes salt their food and not be afraid of the salt shaker. A lot of times they hear that salt is bad, and I’m always shocked at how many athletes try to follow a low sodium diet simply from a lack of education or because they’re following mainstream thought.

“Along with salting their foods and eating lots of fruits and vegetable, many athletes also need to focus on additional supplementation,” she continues. “Athletes’ needs are usually a good bit higher than what they can get in their food, especially those who would be classified in the high sodium concentration group.”

Typical Performance Athlete Sweat Rates

  • One can lose 1-3 liters of sweat per hour of activity.

  • That sweat contains 1.5-3.5 grams of total electrolytes

  • Over 90% are sodium and chloride or salt

With the athletes equipped with the necessary information to properly fuel, the next step is to make sure they have the right resources at their disposal. “Throughout all of our facilities and offices, we have products like The Right Stuff® and other products that provide nutritional replacements and help with hydration and prevention of various forms of cramping,” says Cox. “At our dining halls, there are salt shakers everywhere, and we even have a salty station that our nutritionists put in. We also make sure our guys know what foods to gravitate too, which is a big part of fueling as well.”

Prior to taking the job at Baylor, Cox was the Head Football Strength and Conditioning Coach at Villanova from 2014 to 2016. During that time, he found that The Right Stuff® was one of the best products for helping his athletes refuel. “When I was at Villanova, we went with The Right Stuff® practically year-round because it was so beneficial for us,” he says.

The football team at Arizona takes a similar approach in order to make hydration protocols easier for players to follow. “We have Powerade® available 24/7 in the locker room, meeting rooms, and on the field,” says Bradford. “We also provide The Right Stuff® for guys who have a history of cramps, as well as when guys feel like they’re about to cramp or are currently cramping. The Right Stuff® gives them the boost they need because it’s a much more concentrated electrolyte supplement.”

Knowing what to eat and drink is critically important, but knowing when to hydrate is just as vital. “The fueling plans should always include what a player needs to do pre-practice and during practice,” says Langford. “You can’t just ignore the pre-practice or pre-game aspect and expect athletes to replenish all of their fluids and electrolytes on the field. I would recommend that a pre-practice hydration protocol include three things: overall fluid intake, overall electrolyte or sodium intake, and carbohydrates.”

Bradford also supports a proactive approach to hydration. “If a player has a game on Saturday, we want them to pre-load and start hydrating with Powerade® and The Right Stuff® starting on Thursday, especially if they’re already very low in sodium,” he says. “We really encourage those guys to start drinking early because if they try to catch up Friday night or Saturday morning, it’s already too late at that point. We want them to already have those electrolytes in their system.”

A team approach can help ensure all of these fueling messages reach athletes. Cox worked with the rest of the strength and conditioning staff, the athletic training staff, and a team of registered dietitians to put his individualized fueling plans into place. He believes this type of collaboration made the process relatively easy. “Many hands make light work, and we’re fortunate that we have that ability here at Baylor,” he says.

“Taking a team approach as a staff always keeps the players’ interests first,” says Langford. “Dietitians, strength coaches, athletic trainers, and possibly the team physician all need to collaborate. Coaches can provide gentle reminders in the weightroom that the players need to be drinking in between sets. And in the athletic training room, athletic trainers should allow and encourage players to have sports drinks and follow their hydration protocols while on the training table. The team approach is always the most collaborative and integrative way to serve the athlete’s best interest.”

OTHER APPROACHES

Cox admits that all the manpower and resources available at Baylor made the process of sweat analysis and drafting individual fueling plans relatively easy, but he believes that smaller programs with less resources can still take steps to help their athletes get the fuel they need to succeed. After considering the budget at your disposal, Cox suggests looking into what will help you get the most bang for your buck.

“For example, I think having plenty of salt shakers in the cafeteria is something that’s simple and that any school can do,” he says. “It’s also worth looking into The Right Stuff®, pickle juice, salt tablets, and other refueling products. Do a cost-needs analysis, and see what’s best for your situation.”

Langford offers even more cost-effective options to consider. “For schools that don’t have a large budget, the approach should absolutely be about getting electrolytes from food first by having athletes salt their foods and increase their fruit and vegetable intake,” she says. “It’s also worth exploring options such as sponsorships or donors (or booster clubs) to possibly invest in some of the higher electrolyte supplements that could be purchased.

“At the bare minimum, do sweat rate testing by having athletes weigh-in before practice and weigh-out after,” Langford continues. “This will allow you to give them some guidelines based on those numbers. A lot of times, that can be very eye opening for athletes because they see how much they’re sweating out. You can help them visualize what they’re losing by showing them how many water bottles worth of fluid they sweated out during that practice. That alone can get them to drink more and take their hydration more seriously.”

But if sweat testing is in your budget, Cox highly recommends it, even if it’s done only with certain key athletes. “If you can get your athletes tested, I think it’s highly worth it,” he says. “It’s great because it gets rid of a lot of the guesswork. Now we know what specific things our guys need to do to hydrate appropriately throughout the day, pre-practice, during practice, and post-practice.”

If utilized properly, data from sweat testing analysis can be a definite game-changer for athletes, especially those who have struggled in the past with their hydration. “I’ve worked with players who were unable to complete many practices due to dehydration, but once we were able to establish a pre-hydration routine and an on-field hydration protocol, they were able to complete their practices,” says Langford. “I often hear athletes say, ‘I didn’t know I was feeling this bad until I added the electrolytes in.’ That’s why sweat testing can be so successful.”

It enhances the work of strength coaches, athletic trainers, and dietitians, as well. “Sweat analysis absolutely helps us do our job better,” says Cox. “Now we’re more aware of the guys that are losing a ton of fluids and electrolytes during training, and we’re always making sure to turn our attention back to them. As a strength coach, having that list of guys that need extra support and care allows you to make sure everyone is fueling properly.

“With this information on hand, now I know to ask certain players, ‘How are you doing with your protocol today? Are you following through? Is something off? Is there anything I can help you with?’” he continues. “Even while we’re stretching players pre-practice or post-practice, we’re talking to them about the things they need to do to optimize their life and their athletic performance, and certainly our sweat testing and use of various re-hydration products are a big part of that.”


 

David Stern is an Assistant Editor for Training & Conditioning magazine. He can be reached at: [email protected].

This article appeared in the September/October 2018 issue of Training & Conditioning.

 

 

 

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