Cranky, Tired, and Not in the Mood to Practice?

Have you ever timed how long it takes to go to the bathroom?

Just FYI, it takes at least 2 minutes to take a leak, assuming close proximity of the restroom and that you wash and dry your hands.

Two minutes may not sound like much, but it can seem like an eternity if you’re in the middle of an intense practice session, rehearsal, or even if you’re trying to cram a ton of errands and chores into an afternoon.

We’ve all been told how important it is to stay properly hydrated, and have read those miracle stories about how water will help us look 10 years younger.

But drinking more water means going to the bathroom more often. And going to the bathroom is a bit of a hassle (or am I the only crazy one here?).

So is all the pro-water talk just a bunch of marketing hype for a multi-billion-dollar industry? Or is staying hydrated actually worth the effort when it comes to practicing more effectively and performing better when it matters?

Levels of dehydration

We know that severe dehydration – defined as a loss of body water of more than 5% – can be pretty serious. Serious, as in delirium, unconsciousness, and even death.

But that’s not very typical, and is going to take way more than playing even the longest symphony ever (Havergal Brian’s Symphony No. 1 “The Gothic”), which clocks in at almost 2 hours.

Reaching a state of mild (1%-2%) or moderate (2%-5%) dehydration on the other hand, is pretty easy, and can occur in the course of a normal day’s activities. We don’t really start getting thirsty until we have lost 1%-2% of our body water, so many of us are probably mildly dehydrated for at least part of each day.

Mild/moderate dehydration and physical performance

When it comes to classic athletic indicators like strength, power, and speed, it’s been estimated from the results of a variety of studies that a 2% loss of body water can result in a 20% decline in performance.

That seems like a pretty significant performance hit, but the degree to which this is important for musicians would depend on the particular physical demands of one’s instrument.

On the other hand, the impact of mild to moderate dehydration on one’s cognitive performance is likely to be of interest to musicians across the board.

Dehydration and cognitive performance

Cognitive performance can be tricky to measure, but researchers have found several things that are intriguing and relevant to musicians.

Attention

At 1%-2% dehydration, there doesn’t seem to be much of a drop in performance on tasks testing our ability to pay attention. Go beyond 2%, however, and performance does begin to drop.

Motor skills

Losing 2% or more of body water also has an impact on motor functioning. A study of cricket players found that at 2.8% dehydration, the velocity of their deliveries remained the same, but the accuracy of the line and length of their bowls was reduced by 15%.

A study of golfers found that at 2% loss of body water, shot distance decreased from an average of 128.6 meters to 114.4 meters. But more importantly, shot accuracy degraded from an average of 4.1 meters from the intended target to 7.9 meters from target.

Mood

Other studies have also found losses of around 2% of body water to contribute to headaches, difficulty concentrating, and fatigue as well – all of which would make it more difficult to be productive in the practice room and at one’s best on stage.

Effort

Perhaps the most intriguing finding comes from a recent King’s College London study, where researchers compared the brain activity and cognitive performance of 10 participants when properly hydrated and then in a dehydrated state.

On the surface, being dehydrated didn’t seem to matter much. The participants performed a test of executive functioning called the “Tower of London” task (try your hand at it here), and being dehydrated didn’t have a significant impact on performance.

However, having to perform the task when dehydrated led to a marked increase in neural effort in a part of the brain which is known to be required for complex thinking. In other words, when dehydrated, the participants’ brains had to work harder to achieve the same level of performance as when they were hydrated.

The implication being, given that energy and willpower is a limited resource, you’re more likely to bonk and start seeing your performance decline sooner than someone who is better hydrated.

It does mean having to go to the bathroom more often (or holding it in, though that’s probably not great for concentration or performance either), but it’s kind of silly to make ourselves work harder when a drink of water can make things a bit easier on our poor overworked brain.

Take action

So, the next time you have a headache, are feeling tired, cranky, or just not in the mood to practice, go drink a glass of water, maybe even add a 10-20 minute power nap, and see how that changes things.

Just keep in mind that more doesn’t always mean better. The answer is not to drink as much water as possible. There is such a thing as drinking too much water (though that too is not so common).

For more on the impact of dehydration on performance, check out this review of the literature here: Cognitive Performance and Dehydration

photo credit: AlphaTangoBravo / Adam Baker via photopin cc

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice,
Why Are Performances Still so Hit or Miss?

It’s not a talent issue. And that rush of adrenaline and emotional roller coaster you experience before performances is totally normal too.

Performing at the upper ranges of your ability under pressure is a unique skill – one that requires specific mental skills, and perhaps a few other tweaks in your approach to practicing too. Elite athletes have been learning these techniques for decades; if nerves and self-doubt have been recurring obstacles in your performances, I’d like to help you do the same.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing – a home-study course where you’ll explore the 6 skills that are characteristic of top performers. And learn how you can develop these into strengths of your own. And begin to see tangible improvements in your playing that transfer to the stage.

Comments

9 Responses

  1. I’m a singer, and so I’m used to gulping down water all the time while practicing. Turning up to rehearsal without a water bottle is unheard of! I wonder if singers are, on average, more hydrated than other musicians? Thank you, Dr Noa, for writing about this topic, it’s a great reminder that hydration is an important part of performance. It’s easy to forget to drink enough water especially when we’re having a busy day rushing to and fro, but I can definitely say that there is a noticeable difference in my sound production when I’m adequately hydrated compared to when I’m not.

  2. Very true! Over the last two years I’ve been building my business, there has been a big need to work long hours and maintain high levels of focus and creativity. The solution I found that works best for me is drinking LOTS of water. It does mean having to use the restroom more, but I can’t say how many times chugging water has help me go the extra mile in bringing major projects to a conclusion. I just learned about the importance of a midday nap and even though I can feel the need in my body, it’s still a struggle to pull myself away from the computer! Thanks for your article 🙂

  3. I’m a singer, and when I start to have full-fledged imaginary conversations with the music in front of me, I try to remember when I drank my last glass of water. Usually does the trick. Thanks for the article.

  4. Staying hydrated to enhance performance and practice is, in most sectors of musical discipline and understanding, novel and perhaps lacking clear, conscious, and reliable frames of reference. As well, it’s difficult for me to separate dietary food choices, relative to musicality, from imbibing water. Certainly juicy fruits impart nourishment and hydration, as well as many other vegetables. Moreover, the absorption of the fluid content of plant foods would probably be more regulated than drinking a generous amount of water. This is a difficult subject because certain foods, certainly sweet fruits can affect blood sugar levels unfavorably in some people, at some times, especially ingested singly. If one has imbibed a ‘reasonable’ amount of fluid throughout the day, and their physiology is comfortable with juicy fruits, or certain vegetables, than this practice is justifiable. In short, if one acknowledges the rational for adhering to the well established practice of staying hydrated to maintain cognitive and physical performance, of necessity, close monitoring of food choices and hydration is, key to this kind of enhancement and maintenance. A food journal, noting specific food choices, and complex meals, and the affects on performance is a worthy endeavor.

    Yes, staying hydrated is without question a critical factor in the enhancement and maintenance of good practice and performance. It is equally important to consider the quality of the water we are ingesting. Much, if not most of municipal water contains hormone disruptors from prescriptions medicines flushed down the toilet. Bottled water is not necessarily better. For years, even the few decent sources of bottled water were contaminated with BPA’s; hormone disruptors derived from the plastic containers. I do not have all the answers. I’m simply suggesting that as consumers we need to educate ourselves, and make informed choices. Of course, the chemicals that disinfect our drinking water is necessary; but not for our physiology. There is no physiological or metabolic need to ingest chlorine, or fluoride. Therefore, filtration, or ideally reverse osmosis systems, is highly recommended, in my view.

    Virtually all commercial foods, especially meats, are highly contaminated, and diseased. The oceans, and virtually all rivers, ponds, and streams are highly contaminated. There is essentially no fish that is safe to eat; on a regular bases. Why would we only focus on hydration, and ignore a potentially greater peril; perhaps not in the short term relative to performance, but in the long term. I’m sure, for many, the constant ingesting of highly contaminated foods degrades cognitive function, and musical performance. This is my best advice. Go to nutritionfacts.org and on the left select from the topics meat, fish, chicken, cheese, milk, and any other food choice that comes to mind. The scientific, evidence based studies are clearly available. You will be shocked and amazed at the grounded information provided; and especially with the degree to which most foods are contaminated, and adulterated. I offer these comments for your consideration. Thank you.

  5. That was really interesting and insightful. I’ve always known that hydration is important and have trained myself to be acutely aware of how i feel different when I assume I am reaching about 2% loss of water. Sometimes, depending on the activity it is just not easy to stay hydrated if a source of water is not close by. For these cases I would always just push through but now I am rethinking it and might just take water with me where ever I go. In fact right now I am slightly dehydrated. Mild headache, sticky and slightly sore eyes. dry skin, cotton mouth and everything seems just a little harder to do. Ya time for some good ol’ H2O

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