With winter soon coming to an official close, weekend warrior athletes are dusting off their mountain bikes, running shoes, hiking boots and other adventure gear.

If you’re looking forward to getting outdoors more often, especially now that daylight hours are longer, don’t underestimate the power of sweat. The heat can take a toll on your body but here are some ideas for how to stay hydrated.

For most recreational athletes, the keys to hydration will be:

  • Eating a balanced diet
  • Avoiding excess alcohol intake
  • Monitoring body weight and urine color
  • Drinking water before thirst sets in

What about avoiding caffeine?

Coffee drinkers, rejoice! Although most of us have heard that caffeinated beverages dehydrate, some research studies suggest that caffeine is no more a diuretic than water, and will not in fact dehydrate you.

Dr. Lawrence Armstrong, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Connecticut, concluded, after reviewing other studies on caffeine, “…athletes and recreational enthusiasts will not incur detrimental fluid-electrolyte imbalances if they consume (caffeine) in moderation and eat a typical U.S. diet.”

Armstrong’s findings were published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism.

Do I need a sports drink to stay hydrated?

Most likely, no. In fact, Armstrong does not recommend sports drinks for staying hydrated, but he does tell Mother Nature Network that research proves they are beneficial in a couple of situations.

“In rare instances, an athlete can have a severe carbohydrate deficiency, where glycogen stores in muscles and liver are completely depleted,” says Armstrong.

How do you know if you have depleted your glycogen stores? “You don’t really know for sure unless you do a biopsy,” says Armstrong.

But there are common symptoms when you hit the proverbial wall, such as headache, fatigue, dizziness, shakiness and extreme hunger.

If you experience any of these symptoms, you are severely dehydrated and should immediately replenish your electrolytes (sodium, potassium and other minerals) with a sports drink.

Armstrong offers this final word on sports drink: “Unless you’re an ultra-marathoner or have a rare sodium deficiency, which is not likely for those consuming a typical Western diet, you don’t need sports drinks.”

How much water should I drink and when should I drink it?

Courtney Pinard, research scientist at the Gretchen Swanson Center for Nutrition in Omaha, Neb., says that if you wait until you’re thirsty while exercising, you are not staying hydrated.

“Biologically, once our thirst cues kick in, it’s most likely too late. You’re already dehydrated, so it’s important to stay on top of it and drink before, during and after exercising,” says Pinard.

Pinard recommends that female athletes drink 3 liters of water per day and male athletes should consume 4 liters.

“Pre-hydrate with two, 8-oz servings of water well before you exercise and try to consume around 32-oz. of water for every hour you exercise,” recommends Pinard, who concurs with Armstrong that if you eat a balanced diet, water is all you need to hydrate and you don’t need extra electrolytes — even if you’re a weekend warrior athlete grinding out a 90-minute mountain bike ride.

How can I tell if I’m properly hydrated?

Look at the color of your urine and also weigh yourself. If your urine is clear, you’re adequately hydrated; if it’s dark you are likely dehydrated.

If you urinate with adequate frequency, roughly every two hours or so, you are most likely hydrated. For those that take supplements rich in B Vitamins, the urine might be discolored with a bright green hue, but that does not mean you are dehydrated; it’s the vitamins being flushed out by the kidneys.

Dr. Armstrong recommends weighing yourself on a scale that is able to measure tenths-of-a-pound first thing in the morning for a week and using the most common number in the weekly reading as a baseline.

After you exercise, weigh yourself and if your weight is lower than your morning baseline reading, you may be dehydrated.

For each pound of bodyweight that you’ve lost, replace it with a pint of water to get back to your baseline.

Do you agree with the researchers? How do you stay hydrated while exercising?

Judd Handler is a health writer in Encinitas, California.

How to stay hydrated
If you're looking forward to getting outdoors more often, especially now that daylight hours are longer, don’t underestimate the power of sweat.