Last week I wrote about What a Beginning Cyclist Should Eat, which applies to all roadies. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends, depending on how big you are, consuming 25 to 60 grams of carbs (100 to 240 calories) per hour after the first hour of exercise. Note that the recommendation is only for calories of carbs.
This week I’ll cover what to drink. This also applies to all roadies. Your choice of a drink can provide part or all of the carbs you need on a ride. Drinks are usually 100% carbs so they’re digested faster than bars, which contain some protein and fat in addition to carbs.
You’re generating most of the heat. Your engine is only about 25% efficient. Only about 1/4 of the calories you consume provide fuel to your muscles; the other 75% generate heat, which must be dissipated through your skin, which acts as a radiator. Blood carries heat from the core of your body and your sweat dissipates the heat. Even in cool weather you need to drink.
Drink to satisfy your thirst: We used to be taught “Eat before you are hungry, drink before you are thirsty.” When the CamelBak was invented they had a great slogan: Hydrate or Die. And they sold lots of CamelBaks (I still use them). Current research indicates that drinking too much can lead to hyponatremia (low blood sodium), a potentially fatal condition. If you start a ride fully hydrated, then as long as you drink whenever you are thirsty, you’ll be adequately hydrated.
What about dehydration? If you’re drinking less fluid than you’re sweating out you’re getting dehydrated. Moderate dehydration up to about 2% of your body weight isn’t a problem. If you weigh 150 lbs. then 2% dehydration means that you weigh 2% less, i.e., 147 lbs.
Won’t dehydration hurt your performance? No. During a multi-hour race the pros can’t drink enough to stay hydrated, despite all the bottles carried by the domestiques. They sure can climb hard and sprint fast at the end of the race, even if they’re dehydrated!
More information: Learning from the Pros: Heat and Hydration
What is hyponatremia? Hyponatremia is when your blood sodium concentration is significantly below normal, which you can develop either by sweating heavily for many hours or drinking too much fluid (dilutional hyponatremia). According to the ACSM, hyponatremia in rides under four hours is usually the result of drinking too much before, during and after the event. On longer rides, even if you drink appropriately, you may lose enough sodium to develop hyponatremia, so sodium supplementation is a good idea starting early in the event.
Won’t you cramp if you get dehydrated? No. In lab experiments dehydration doesn’t cause cramps. I’ve written a 10-page eBook on Preventing and Treating Cramps. It includes photos illustrating how to break and treat a cramp.
The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) strikes a balance and recommends drinking enough during exercise to prevent both excessive dehydration (>2% body weight) and excessive changes in electrolyte balance.
Which drink is better? In 2018 the size of the global sports drink market was valued at 22.37 billion US dollars! Despite all the advertising claims, nutritionally there’s no difference among the different drinks. Better performance comes from getting enough carbs; not from a particular drink. Pick one that tastes good to you and doesn’t upset your stomach.
More information: 12 Myths About Hydration
What if you don’t like any of them? As long as you are getting the calories of carbs per hour recommended by the ACSM how you get the calories doesn’t matter. Nutritionally a bottle of water and a banana for example are as good as a bottle of sports drink.
But what about the electrolytes? Companies claim, “Our XYZ sports drink is the best because it has the electrolytes you need.” When you sweat salt and potassium are the only electrolyte you are depleting significantly. All of the other electrolytes in your sweat are in minute amounts compared to your body’s stores. Here’s what the ACSM recommends for a hydration drink per 8 fl. oz.:
- Calories 48 – 96.
- Sodium 120 – 170 mg.
- Potassium 19 – 46 mg.
More information What is the Best Electrolyte Supplement, which also contains a recipe for a home-made hydration drink that meets the ACSM recommendations.
How should you rehydrate? After a race the pros drink 1.5 times the amount of fluid they’ve sweated out. One pound equals one pint of fluid. (One kilogram equals one liter.( If your weight is down three pounds then you need to drink 4 1/2 pints. Special recovery drinks are no more beneficial than other drinks – just more expensive. In addition to fluid, smoothies, chocolate milk and sports drinks provide calories to replenish your glycogen stores. Plain water is fine, too, as long as you also eat some carbs.
More information: Best Recovery Food and Drink
I’ve written two eBooks on Cycling in the Heat
- Cycling in the Heat, Part 1: – Ride Management. Explains how to acclimate, how to ride in the heat without overheating, how to stay (relatively) cool, what to wear, what to eat and drink, how to cool down if you overheat, and heat-related problems. The 20-page Part 1: Ride Management is $4.99.
- Cycling in the Heat, Part 2: – Hydration Management. Explains how to assess your personal sweat rate and composition, how much you should drink, electrolyte replacement and the pros and cons of electrolyte replacement drinks, supplements and foods. The 21-page Part 2: Hydration Management is $4.99.
Both are included in the four-article cost-saving Summer Riding Bundle, which gives you the info you need to ride better and more comfortably:
- Cycling in the Heat, Part 1: – Ride Management. 20 pages
- Cycling in the Heat, Part 2: – Hydration Management. 21 pages.
- Preventing and Treating Cramps. I haven’t cramped in decades. 10 pages on what causes cramps, how to prevent them and what to do to break a cramp so you can keep riding.
- Eating and Drinking Like the Pros: How to Make Your Own Sports Food and Drink — Nutritional Insight from Pro Teams. 15 pages covering what the pros eat and drink, what you can learn from this, how to make your own sports drinks, gels and solid food, and what to eat at a minimart.
All this for only $15.96.
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Coach John Hughes earned coaching certifications from USA Cycling and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. John’s cycling career includes course records in the Boston-Montreal-Boston 1200-km randonnée and the Furnace Creek 508, a Race Across AMerica (RAAM) qualifier. He has ridden solo RAAM twice and is a 5-time finisher of the 1200-km Paris-Brest-Paris. He has written nearly 30 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John's full bio.