The 7 Rules of Hydration for the Competitive Cyclist

woman in black and white stripe tank top and black shorts sitting on brown wooden fence hydration
Photo by Bannon Morrissy on Unsplash

Hydration is replacing fluid lost during exercise. Doing it right means winning races. Do it wrong and you will lose races or even face serious medical difficulties. What you drink during a ride provides you with water, and if you use a sports drink, it also gives you fuel for your muscles (in the form of sugars) and minerals to replace sodium and potassium lost in sweat. Lance Armstrong almost lost this year’s Tour in the first individual time trial when he became dehydrated.41d3m9wvsYL. SL250ir?t=vishalbhat 21&language=en IN&l=li3&o=31&a=B00WWTMXAW

Lance spoke about what happened. He lost almost 15 lbs in body fluid. Try filling a bucket on a scale to see how much water that is. It is the amount of fluid in 20 cans of soda or just under two gallons of milk. Lance is an expert on how his body responds to exercise and how much fluid he needs to drink to be at his peak ability. He messed up on the day of the individual time trial. He underestimated his fluid losses in the hours before the race as he warmed up because of the unusual heat and humidity. He lost a lot of time to Ulrich.

The next day in the first stage in the Pyrenees, he also did not perform well. He made another critical point about hydration in the post-race interview. If you get into trouble with dehydration, it can take several days to recover. We are made up of millions of cells, and it can take several days of fluid replacement to get them back to normal functioning. That means days when muscles, lungs, and brain are not functioning at 100%.
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Hydration is about succeeding today, but it is also about being able to ride tomorrow. If you are doing a rest-day short ride of less than an hour, it may not matter if you drink enough, but if you ride every day, it does.

Simple Rules On Hydration

  • Use a sports drink like Extran or Gatorade since they give you sodium and potassium, replacing what you lose in sweat. It also gives you carbohydrate (sugars) that gives your muscle the fuel it needs to function. Do not mix a sports drink too weak or dilute it to make it last longer. These drinks are formulated to give you the right amount of fuel and minerals. Check out the Gatorade Sports Science Institute website, where much of the research on hydration is summarized.
  • If you don’t like the taste of a sports drink, you won’t drink it, so find one you like. Just be sure it has sodium, potassium, and sugar content similar to Extran or Gatorade. Some people have trouble handling certain sugar in the drinks and can get stomach cramps. Try several until you find one that works for you. A general rule is a drink with around 6% carbohydrate (sugars) and at least 100mg sodium and 35mg potassium per 8 ounces.
  • Use a sports drink, not plain water, for rides over an hour or in scorching conditions.
  • Before a long training ride or race, drink 17-20 ounces of water or a sports drink 2-3 hours before the event. Then another 10-12 ounces 10 minutes or so before the event.
  • During the event, drink a sports drink at a rate that replaces your sweat losses.
  • After the event, be sure to replace your fluid losses with a sports drink within 2 hours.
  • A lot of fluid is lost through breathing, so even in cold weather, where you don’t think you are sweating much, you still lose fluids.

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