Sports hydration has come a long way since rat poison and brandy
To find arguably the most peculiar race in Olympic history, you need to go back more than a century, to the marathon at the 1904 Games in St. Louis, Missouri.
It was called a marathon, but there was not much in common with the type of race you’ve see in modern times. One of the competitors, Felix Carvajal of Cuba, showed up at the starting line in long pants and boots, requiring a helpful passerby to slice his slacks with a pair of scissors into something resembling athletic wear.
Shortly after the 26.2-mile race began, a runner from South Africa was chased more than a mile off the course by a pack of rabid dogs. Only 14 of the 32 participants made it to the finish line, primarily because the race was staged in the searing afternoon heat. The initial winner, Fred Lorz, took a car ride most of the way and collected his gold medal before being exposed as a cheat.
Yet for all the wacky weirdness, perhaps the most remarkable headline out of the face was that the ultimate winner, Thomas Hicks, managed to reach the finish line at all. As if running in the steamy conditions over dusty, car-filled roads wasn’t enough of the challenge, there were no aid or hydration stations along the course.
But that was decades before the importance of hydration was recognized or understood.
“It was an experience that you could say bordered on torture and it is no surprise so few of the runners completed the course,” Olympic historian Bill Mallon said. “There were no proper water stations set up. It is possible that some of the runners had water given to them by their trainers, but as we know, the trainers didn’t seem very keen on that idea either.”
By the time Hicks staggered in, having been virtually carried by two assistants for parts of the final few miles, he had been kept moving by a potentially lethal concoction of rat poison, egg whites and brandy.
The American’s coaches leaned on the prevailing thought that water was harmful to long-distance runners, and allowed Hicks only to occasionally sponge out the inside of his. The only water “station” on the course was a ground well at the 11-mile mark.
Hicks received medical attention for more than an hour after the race. And the event had turned into such a disaster, that there was talking of eliminating the marathon from future Games. “Part of the history of the Olympics is also a history of humankind’s differing views about the body - and how to get it to perform,” Mallon added.
Understanding hydration today
Yet according to Dr. Stacy Sims, co-founder of the functional-beverage company ERW, and a pioneering researcher on hydration, the advancements in hydration and fueling needs over the past 116 years have not been as overwhelming as you might assume.
Thankfully, no one still believes guzzling rat poison and brandy is a good idea, but Sims insists too many athletes get caught up in slogans and advertising campaigns and fail to focus on the science behind performance improvement.
- Dr. Stacy Sims
“Of course, things are very different compared to then,” Sims said. “But there have been misconceptions and pervasive myths around the optimal ways for athletes to hydrate for as long as there have been endurance events – and there still are. There is sound science, but it gets lost in the translation to marketing and biased agendas.”
By the 1960s, there was still the concept in professional cycling that drastically limiting fluid intake during the toughest and most grueling of mountain stages of the Tour de France was the right thing to do. When British rider Tommy Simpson died mid-stage on Mont Ventoux during the 1967 Tour, it was initially reported that the presence of amphetamines and alcohol in his system was the cause of death, but extreme dehydration may have been the more significant factor.
During the same decade, Dr. Robert Cade was developing the solution that would eventually become Gatorade, using a combination of sugar, salt and water to assist the University of Florida football team. The ensuing commercial success of the brand served to widen awareness of sports hydration, though critics are quick to point out the high sugar content of the regular version.
By the 1980s, several products being marketed as sports drinks were laden with sugar, a trend that continues to this day. A study by Oxford and Harvard Universities, highlighted by a BBC report in 2012, showed that many products did not live up to their promise to boost athletic performance.
“There is a striking lack of evidence to support the majority of ... claims related to enhanced performance or recovery,” the report stated. “The absence of high-quality evidence is worrying.”
Sims has been fighting the battle to get the right product and the right knowledge in front of the public for a long time and only agreed to join renowned chef Hannah Grant in launching ERW Active after the pair agreed that there would be no compromises on the ingredients used to fuel their consumers.
Several generations on from Hicks’ marathon there is still a lack of understanding as to the complexities of human hydration, highlighted by a sports trend during the early 2000s that often saw athletes overhydrate.
“Both a lack of adequate fluid replacement (hypohydration) and excessive intake (hyperhydration) can compromise athletic performance and increase health risks,” stated a 2017 report published by the National Athletic Trainers’ Association. “Athletes need access to water to prevent hypohydration during physical activity, but must be aware of the risks of overdrinking and hyponatremia.”
Finding the delicate balance
That’s what makes ERW Active revolutionary. Sims designed the “Hydrate” brand to work with the body’s physiology. The product is formulated to maximize fluid absorption transport mechanisms in the small intestines through a low concentration of mixed carbohydrates and critical electrolytes.
ERW Active promises to provide “tools for the race of life” and was formulated by years of extensive research, spearheaded by Sims. However, cutting through the confused and outdated messaging surrounding hydration is an ongoing challenge.
“I wanted to be involved in something that makes sense to people,” Sims added. “A big part of it is education and increasing understanding that one size, or one type of hydration doesn’t fit everyone. We want people to know more. But there is a lot of history we are working against.”