Hydration know-how

Whether you’re riding outdoors in the height of summer or taking on a high-intensity interval session indoors on a Wattbike, one of the most important things to get right is hydration.

It might sound easy but there’s a lot more to it than just swallowing lots of water after a training session. If you’re using one of the many readily available sports drinks then understanding what’s in them, and when to use them, will help you to become a better rider.

There are some clear trends emerging at the elite level of cycling that we can all use as pointers to ensure we maximise performance and minimise risk to our health.

Back then

Many, many years ago the advice was simple: avoid eating and drinking anything during any form of exercise. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s the advice moved to the other extreme with a ‘more is better’ approach, but neither of these options is safe or beneficial.

Current advice

There are no blanket guidelines when it comes to understanding how much dehydration can affect your performance as there are many factors that influence how much fluid loss you, as an individual, can tolerate, such as:

  • Your hydration status at the start of a session or event. The more dehydrated you are when you begin, the more likely you are to need to consume fluids during the session.
  • Your sweat rate. This can be driven by your genetics, the ambient temperature, your work rate, clothing and exercise intensity. A higher rate of sweating will require a larger amount of fluid intake over time.
  • Your nutritional intake. Your body will require and retain (or excrete) more or less fluid based on the level of electrolytes and carbohydrates you are ingesting before and during exercise.
  • Your training status. It may be that more highly trained individuals can tolerate slightly different levels of fluid loss than more recreational athletes.
  • Your genetic make-up. As with most aspects of physiology it is not unreasonable to conceive that different people will have the capacity to tolerate different amounts of fluid loss before exercise performance is impacted.

Luckily we have been equipped with a fantastic mechanism to tell us when we need to drink…it’s called thirst.

As your training for Prudential RideLondon-Surrey 100 moves forward you’ll become more tuned into your body’s needs, whether that’s for recovery, nutrition or hydration. Listen to your thirst mechanism and use it to guide your fluid intake.

Electrolyte loss

You’ll find many sports drinks contain electrolytes and carbohydrates, but do you really need them? Electrolytes are lost in sweat and this is the main reason for including them in a sports drink. They are not generally required for shorter, lighter training sessions or events, but when sweat losses are high over extended periods then some advantage can be gained by either pre-loading before a session or event, which may help reduce the need to drink as much during the session or event.

Fuel reserves

Carbohydrate energy is burned as the body’s preferred fuel source during high-intensity exercise. There is a limited supply of carbohydrate available in the body and when this is gone you are forced to burn more fat. However, burning fat can only be done at a lower exercise intensity so inevitably your performance will drop off.

Avoid the bloat

Carbohydrate ingestion during exercise has been shown to be very effective in boosting performance but consuming carbohydrates in liquid form has some implications for hydration in that if the conditions dictate that you want to drink a lot, for example when it is very hot, you will end up drinking large volumes of a sugary drink which may leave you feeling sick and bloated.

This is the most common mistake made by novice riders but you can avoid it by drinking only water or a water/electrolyte mix when thirsty and consuming carbohydrates in the form of gels, bars and other types of food.

Listen to your body

Above all learn to listen to your body and respond to its subtle messages. Drink fluids when you are thirsty and eat carbohydrate-based snacks to maintain energy levels when you are training hard and you feel the need to. Remember that overconsumption of fluids or calories can lead to as many, if not more problems, than under consumption.

For more detailed hydration information, read Wattbike’s Advanced Hydration Guide by Andy Blow.