Whether your training indoors or riding a gran fondo, hydration is crucial for your health and performance. Physiology, weather, and time all play a role in what to drink when cycling.
For more information on training check out Ask a Cycling Coach Ep 256.
The Importance of Hydration
It’s hard to overstate the effects of dehydration on cycling performance. Your hydration significantly influences blood plasma volume. As you become dehydrated, your plasma volume decreases. Seeing that blood plasma is the key to VO2 max, you are going to work harder at the same intensity when it drops. These effects become magnified throughout a long endurance event.
The simple solution to dehydration is to drink more water while cycling. However, the problem is a bit more complicated. We not only lose water while we sweat but sodium as well. Replacing the lost fluids with water alone can lead to hypernatremia. This condition is the dilution of blood sodium levels, which is dangerous and potentially deadly. It occurs when you lose a lot of sodium and drink too much water. The good news is that with the right hydration strategy, you can ensure that you are drinking enough during your ride.
How Much to Drink When Cycling
Deciding how much to drink can range widely based on many variables. Your physiology plays a significant role, along with the intensity and weather conditions on your ride. But some general principles can apply to everyone. How much you sweat and the rate at which you lose sodium is highly individual. Sweat a lot? You’ll need to drink more. Do you have salt stains on your bibs or jersey? You will want to drink something with sodium.
Regardless of your sweat rate, it will increase as the temperature and intensity increases. In hot or humid conditions, your body will sweat more to keep you cool, which in turn, means you’ll have to drink more. Additionally, your core temperature will rise with the intensity of your ride. If you are going for an easy spin, you won’t need as much as if you are doing a hard race.
Drink when you’re thirsty is an old cycling adage. There is plenty of merit to this idea. However, it is not necessarily the best advice in some circumstances. If you are completing a long, endurance event, the conditions are hot, or you’re a heavy sweater drinking to thirst may not be enough.
With that being said, a general rule of thumb is to aim for a bottle an hour. Pro Tip: You can set a timer on your phone as a reminder to drink. You’ll need to adjust based on the conditions and your physiology. Your needs when cycling might be higher or lower then this. The best thing is to listen to your body and keep notes on what is working for you.
What to Drink While Cycling
There is a multitude of options when it comes to what to put into your bottles. Depending on your hydration and nutrition needs, this could be a simple as water or a sports mix. In general, there are three options.
The first thing to drink while cycling is plain water. If your ride or workout is a short one, water can be a good choice. Just remember that if you are going to be in the saddle for more than that, you may need some sodium.
Hydration Tabs & Mix
The next option is using hydration tablets or a mix. These mixes usually contain a few carbohydrates and electrolytes. These types of drinks include 3-4% carbs because they help transport water and sodium across the small intestine. Skratch Labs sport hydration mix is a good example. If you use a hydration mix and are aiming for 60-90g of carbs an hour, you’ll need to get your carbs in another way.
Carb Drink Mix
A third way to hydrate during cycling is it use a carb focused drink mix. Usually, these drinks have more carbs and similar sodium content than a hydration mix. For example, SiS Beta Fuel has 80g of carbs and .56g of sodium. These types of drinks are an easy way to get both carbs and hydrate at the same time. Using a carb mix in one bottle with water in another is a popular choice because it can help avoid GI distress from too many carbs.
Whatever you choose to drink when cycling, listen to your body. Learning your needs and accounting for the weather and intensity, you can create a hydration plan that will help you achieve your goals. For more information on hydration, check out Hydration, Sweat, and Cramping with Precision Hydration’s Andy Blow.
For more cycling training knowledge, listen to the Ask a Cycling Coach — the only podcast dedicated to making you a faster cyclist. New episodes are released weekly.