Water break – Is only drinking when told so really good for training?

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In most clubs I’ve trained at, there were strict drinking restrictions during the class. We were offered a water break, which if someone missed they weren’t allowed to drink. Sometimes this break was topped up with a series of ‘life lessons’ on how we build character and toughness by withstanding thirst, or even, how spoiled we still are, because the coach wasn’t allowed to drink during class back then, which allegedly made them who they were.

At one point I had to double check my otherwise solid knowledge on the importance of hydration, because the pattern just kept repeating itself in any martial art clubs regardless of the artform itself. But when I re-checked the literature, I saw the same conclusions:

‘… Maintaining hydration status during exercise and competition is one of the most important nutritional strategies for any performance athlete. […] In addition, many athletes do not fully comprehend the far-reaching adverse effects of dehydration including exacerbated strain on our cardiovascular system, decreased blood flow to the brain, elevated core temperature, increased skeletal muscle glycogen use, increased fatigue and decreased mood and brain function’ (Sawka, Cheuvront, and Kenefick 2015) – source article on humankinetics.me

This is nothing new: this has been the mainstream scholarly view for decades on the importance of drinking water during training, which highlights the performance loss and physiological damage caused when we push our body without giving it the necessary amount of water to operate properly. I wondered why clubs were selling the lie that abusing our body makes us tougher. It has no scientific base, it’s against professional training recommendations and yet is so widespread.

The number of similar urban legends relating to toughness is probably countless and I could only guess why they are so popular. There is no manual to life, or an exact self-help book on how to be stronger, tougher or what is toughness in the first place. But in the real world, there is not much gain of being able to withstand thirst when the length of a competition bout is only 10 minute, that is the longest period a fighter is not allowed to drink. The main issue with these club rules is that despite their intention of teaching self-control, they only teach obedience since people are only following external orders regarding drinking, they don’t learn how to recognize when getting slower and weaker by thirst.

Not drinking because someone else said so doesn’t build character, and I’m aware of the debate it might open up about how much authority one should give to a coach. In martial art circles there is a huge controversy around masters and the unconditional trust and obedience expected to be given to them. This subservient relationship might work for rookies, but anyone who has witnessed any abuse of power or who has been injured as a result of an authority figure’s negligence would think twice.

The other issue with this approach is that the body does not always respond to challenges as expected. It is well known that accommodating is one response while getting oversensitive is the other. You’re not necessarily making your body tougher when you withhold water from it. In a lot of cases, dehydration just makes the body more sensitive which in turn can result in the collapse of metabolism.

In the context of learning martial arts, toughness means boundaries and self-regulatory ability. For example, learning your physical limits so you don’t injure yourself by overtraining or pass out of overheating. To reach this goal, a master would let you drink when you want and encourage you to recognise when your performance is dropping to act on it so you’re able to keep your game up. Learning how much liquid you can drink without becoming ill in competition is also an essential skill that requires practice.

The actual ‘toughness’ need to be developed here is nothing else than self-management skills, for which the fighter would need to be granted full responsibility over their own condition. When someone orders a trainee to ignore their bodily needs, because of their own view of toughness, the trainee misses the opportunity to learn how to finetune their body for competition.

About the author

M. Leblanc

Trainer, martial artist (Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu), avid self-improver