Does hypohydration really impair endurance performance? Methodological considerations for interpreting hydration research

The impact of alterations in hydration status on human physiology and performance responses during exercise is one of the oldest research topics in sport and exercise nutrition. This body of work has mainly focussed on the impact of reduced body water stores (i.e. hypohydration) on these outcomes, on the whole demonstrating that hypohydration impairs endurance performance, likely via detrimental effects on a number of physiological functions. However, an important consideration, that has received little attention, is the methods that have traditionally been used to investigate how hypohydration affects exercise outcomes, as those used may confound the results of many studies. There are two main methodological limitations in much of the published literature that perhaps make the results of studies investigating performance outcomes difficult to interpret. First, subjects involved in studies are generally not blinded to the intervention taking place (i.e. they know what their hydration status is), which may introduce expectancy effects. Second, most of the methods used to induce hypohydration are both uncomfortable and unfamiliar to the subjects, meaning that alterations in performance may be caused by this discomfort, rather than hypohydration per se. This review discusses these methodological considerations and provides an overview of the small body of recent work that has attempted to correct some of these methodological issues. On balance, these recent blinded hydration studies suggest hypohydration equivalent to 2–3% body mass decreases endurance cycling performance in the heat, at least when no/little fluid is ingested.