Hydration on the bike

Hydration at any time of year is vital for not just the enjoyment of your ride, but also your overall state of health.

Many of us struggle to drink enough water during the day & often overlook just how vital adequate hydration is for everything else in your life. However, as the weather improves, the days get longer and the rides get longer, fluids start to play a far more critical role.

Whilst out riding it is easy to get sidetracked and forget to take in fluids. If you spend a considerable time on busy or rough roads, rough trails or tackling tough climbs, reaching for the bottle can often be the last thing on your mind.

However, you need to be looking to take on fluids every 15 minutes or so, even if you don’t feel particularly thirsty. The sensation of thirst usually happens after you have become slightly dehydrated.

The Biology Part

Your body has a finely balanced internal plumbing system. It requires water to survive, but also a whole raft of salts and minerals called electrolytes, most notably sodium, potassium, chloride and bicarbonate.

Electrolytes are critical in allowing cells to generate energy, maintain the stability of their walls, and to function in general. They generate electricity, contract muscles, move water and fluids within the body, among other things. The thing is, the margin for ‘normal’ levels of these electrolytes in your system is quite narrow and it doesn’t take much to throw things off course.

Unfortunately, as you sweat & urinate these minerals are excreted, affecting the electrolyte balance. Common sense suggests that you drink water to quench your thirst & stave off dehydration, but water alone will not redress the electrolyte imbalance.

You can definitely drink too much water and, if you’re not also taking on adequate electrolytes, you’ll effectively dilute and affect the balance of your body’s fluids. This can lead to a feeling of being bloated, reduced performance and, in extreme cases of hyponatremia, even death. Cases of this have been seen in recent years at big city centre marathons where runners, worried by constant reminders of the importance of staying hydrated, have drunk excessively before the event and taken plain water on at every single aid station. Remember, as well as replacing lost fluid, you also have to replace lost electrolytes too.

Source: Hydration on the bike

Many of us have experienced the effects of dehydration –if you’ve ever had a hangover from a heavy night out, you’ll know what dehydration (albeit relatively mild dehydration) feels like. Alcohol will dehydrate you because it suppresses the production of the ADH hormone that aids water retention in the kidneys –the so-called ‘breaking of the seal’ leading to endless trips to the lavatory. Getting dehydrated on a long ride may well give you the same pounding head & nausea you get from a night on the tiles, but hopefully without the embarrassing flashbacks and texts to an old flame.

Dehydration can also cause kidney stones, which are dreadfully painful little blighters that, if you are lucky, will pass naturally but in some cases will need a hospital visit for extraction or to be broken up with ultrasound. So, we need to keep hydrated. In severe cases hospitalisation is required where a saline solution is administered intravenously.

Other problems associated with dehydration, particularly over a longer term include back pain, muscle damage & constipation. There’s fluid between your joints, in your digestive system and pretty much everywhere else. So, it’s important to get hydration nailed before things get serious.

How…

The main thing to remember is to drink. If you need prompting, most cycle computers or phones will allow you to set a reminder to drink every 15 minutes, with the aim of getting through a litre every hour or so, particularly in hot weather.

Even when you are not riding, you should be looking to consume around 2 litres of water every day. Water consumed through food counts, but perhaps stay away from the fizzy drinks and alcohol! That leads us to a whole other issue that we talked about before in our Getting Fit post.

The next thing is to look at what you are drinking. Plain water is fine for short rides, but an all day ride such as an Audax or a long sportive will require some variation. You can buy powders and soluble tablets that contain electrolytes. There are also powders and tablets that contain carbohydrates or caffeine as well as electrolytes, which may not be a bad idea for very long rides into the night. Best of all, sachets or tubes of electrolyte tabs are easy to carry in the back pockets of your jersey.

Alternatively, you can mix your own drink using one of the many recipes available on the internet if you search for “home-made electrolyte drink”.

You could also include savoury snacks to your ride fuel too –if you should stop at a pub or shop, salted peanuts or cashews may do the job, not to mention providing a protein boost as well. They’ll also make you feel thirsty, which is probably a good thing in this instance!

Finally, it pays to not overdress. Aim to be a little cool as you leave the house, so you are not sweating under layers of unnecessary clothing when you get going.

We weren’t joking about the “everything” part…

It is easy to forget how important your physical health is for everything else in our life. Society places demands upon us that lead us to neglect our bodies for the sake of an often arbitrary deadline or demand at work or in our personal life. We become sedentary; we sit at our desks for far too long; we snack on junk food & neglect our fluid intake.

However, our minds rely on a healthy body and a healthy lifestyle to function correctly. Neglect can all too easily lead into a cycle of anxiety, depression, aches & pains, poor concentration and lead to low achievement at work, college or school and problems with our relationships with other people.

Get your hydration and your nutrition right on or off the bike and you will feel a lot better for it.

As an experiment, next time you get up for a pee, make a mental note of the colour of it. If it is bright orange, you are probably not drinking enough!

Gavin

Bike commuter, randonneur and cat wrangler

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