Cycling Nutrition: Advanced Guide To Hydration
We can’t say it enough, staying hydrated is one of the most important things you can do on a ride. But if you think that staying hydrated is all about drinking water, then you’re missing half the story. Your body also needs electrolytes such as sodium, potassium and magnesium to maintain proper functioning during exercise.
Drinking the correct amount of water:
First let’s look at the most important and basic step in proper hydration: drinking the correct amount of water. Drinking the correct amount of water on your ride is important for two main reasons the first of which is in regulating your body’s core temperature. As you ride your muscles generate heat, so to cool off your body sweats; sweat evaporates and draws heat away from the body. Sweating is extremely important and an average rider will lose as much as two pounds of water weight through sweat in only an hour of riding. If this water loss goes unchecked dehydration will set in and start to effect performance. In order to prevent the onset of dehydration you should try to drink 20-24oz, or about one bottle, of fluid per hour. Remember that if you start feeling thirsty it means you’re already on your way to becoming dehydrated, so drink before you need to.
If it’s really hot or especially humid, you might need to drink an additional 8-10 oz of water per hour, but it’s important to not overdo it. It is possible to over-hydrate, as there is a limit to how quickly the body can absorb fluids. The goal is to ensure that you’re drinking just enough fluid so that you body can actually use it. Drink too little and you run the risk of dehydration. Drink too much, and you could end up with some stomach upset or a condition called hyponatremia or “water intoxication”. This occurs when the electrolytes in your blood become too diluted, and can lead to confusion, cramping, nausea and worse. This brings us to the second important component of proper hydration: Electrolytes.
Electrolytes are minerals like sodium, potassium and magnesium that play a variety of vital rolls in the body, from maintaining blood pressure to allowing your nervous system to function. When we sweat, we not only lose water, but these essential minerals as well. If they are not replaced or allowed to become too dilute, you body will let you know with some good old fashioned cramps and decreased performance. Just as with fluid intake, the body won’t absorb electrolytes as fast as it will lose them and trying to overdo can often do more harm than good. Replenishing electrolytes is a little trickier than replenishing fluids because the rate we lose electrolytes can vary widely from person to person. Factors that affect the rate of electrolyte loss can vary from fitness and environmental conditions to genetics. It would be wrong for us to say that you should take “x”mg of sodium or “x”mg potassium but we can suggest these tips.
First, try to avoid diluting a sports drink to get the taste you want. If you find the taste of a product not to your liking you will be better served shopping around for one you do like at the recommended concentration.
Next, listen to your body, if you run into problems with cramping you will want to increase your electrolyte intake either with a different sports drink or an electrolyte supplement. If you do choose to use an electrolyte supplement make sure it provides a spectrum of electrolytes that include at least sodium and potassium. Bear in mind that many energy gels and chews also contain electrolytes as well.
And lastly, if you have problems with swelling in the hands and feet this can often be caused by water retention due to too much sodium intake and you should consider reducing your electrolyte intake.
Remember, these are very broad guide lines and everyone is different and is particularly true with electrolyte depletion. If you have persistent problems with cramping or other issues you should seek out the help of a professional sports nutritionist.
Important Note: This guide provides a basic overview of cycling related hydration and nutrition, but should not be considered exhaustive. If cycling is a major part of your lifestyle, or if you are dealing with a particular health issue, we highly recommend that you seek out a qualified sports nutritionist. (Our lawyers made us say that, but it's actually good advice)