What am I going to drink?

When out on your bike have you noticed any of the following symptoms towards the end of a ride?:

  • increased heart rate
  • increased breathing rate
  • increased body temperature
  • fatigue
  • muscle cramps
  • headache
  • nausea

I would be most surprised if you haven’t.  Most of us put this little list of common cycling ailments down simply to not being as fit as we should be.  Whilst this is probably true and will not help the situation, it is much more likely that the main cause of all or any of these symptoms is dehydration.

Your body is over 70% water.  So you can imagine that it is quite important stuff.  Unfortunately the body uses it up and leaks it out so we have to drink to top our supplies up.

There is a lot of scientific research about what happens when we become dehydrated; which are the first parts of the body to dry up and die etc..  All pretty gruesome reading.  But, without getting into the whys and wherefores, the consequences of not keeping your water tanks full (becoming dehydrated) are generally agreed as the list above.  The amount you have to become dehydrated to experience these symptoms varies from research to research but you should start to suffer from them if you are 3-5% dehydrated.  This means your water tanks are 3-5% empty.

However, research has also shown that the body’s ability to produce energy can be significantly affected by even a small drop in hydration and that this increases with each further percentage drop. When you bear in mind other research that suggests we generally operate at 1% dehydrated this means that normally we are under performing from the moment we get on our bikes. Then as the ride progresses, if we put in less liquid than we leak out, our ability to produce energy gets worse and our performance suffers. If we let our water tanks deplete to the 3-5% level we being to suffer the more severe symptoms listed above.

If you become 10% dehydrated you can expect:
  • muscle spasms
  • vomiting
  • racing pulse
  • shrivelled skin
  • dim vision
  • painful urination
  • confusion
  • difficult breathing
  • chest and abdominal pain
  • seizures
  • unconsciousness

Of course if you are grinding up a 20% climb you might well have a racing pulse and difficulty breathing and arguably you must have been pretty confused to go that way in the first place. And the two bottles of red wine (lots of antioxidants) you got through last night might account for the shrivelled skin, dim vision and vomiting. So just because you have some of these symptoms doesn’t necessarily mean you need hospitalization. Just be aware. Especially if you consider that if you become more than 10% dehydrated you might die.

Now, that is all very good, but you do not actually have water tanks with handy gauges to tell you how full of water you are, so how can you tell? The most obvious indicator the body has for dehydration is thirst. Unfortunately the consensus of scientific opinion seems to be that you are already 2-3% dehydrated before you feel thirsty. So if you wait until you are thirsty you are already substantially under performing and getting close to the first list of symptoms.

Another indicator is the colour of your wee. When fully hydrated it should be the colour of pale straw (nice subjective term for you to argue over with your riding companions – “Does this look like pale straw to you?”). The point is, your body starts to regulate water when the level in the tanks starts to go down. Less is leaked out in your urine so it becomes darker in colour. If you notice it becoming darker during a ride you need to start drinking more. Of course it is not always that easy. On long rides I ride with one bottle of energy drink and one of water with an isotonic tablet in it that contains various vitamins and minerals. The side effect of the tablet is that my wee becomes bright, luminous yellow, which is great fun for weeing in the dark but not so good for judging my hydration levels.

So, it is always best to know your own body and to have some idea of how dehydrated you are getting whilst riding over various distances. I know I am normally good at keeping topped up over shorter rides but I lose discipline on longer ones. To judge your hydration levels weigh yourself before and immediately after a ride. Any weight you have lost in kilos is equivalent to fluid loss in litres (roughly 1lb loss = 1 pint). So if you have lost 2 kg you have used up 2 litres from your tanks. This needs to be replaced at 1½ x the fluid loss so you will need to drink 3 litres of water to fill your tanks. And also means you should have drunk this much more on your ride. If you have gained weight during your ride you should consider spending less time on the pub break next time.

Also take into consideration the temperature and riding conditions. You will need to drink much more in hot sunny conditions than in cold wet ones. And a flat route will probably result in less liquids leaking out of you than a hilly one.

Even so, most of your fluid loss will be due to sweat. This means that your body will be losing vital salts as well. Make sure that these are replaced. The easiest way to do this is with isotonic drinks and gels or with isotonic tablets added to your water bottles.  Failing that salted crisps are a good thing to have as a back up.  They also provide a welcome carbohydrate boost and are usually quite palatable, especially if you have been relying on sweet stick stuff all day.

So the answer is to know your body and drink, preferably little and often. And if you get thirsty you have not drunk enough and you need to immediately increase your intake.

Sports Drink Concentration

Isotonic (5-8% sugar)

sports drinks contain similar concentrations of salt and sugar as in the human body. Ideal for consumption during normal riding conditions.

Hypotonic (<5% sugar)

sports drinks contain a lower concentration of salt and sugar than the human body. These are easily absorbed by the body and most useful in hot conditions when hydration is a greater issue than calorie intake or after exercise if you finish in a dehydrated state.

Hypertonic (>10% sugar)

sports drinks contain a higher concentration of salt and sugar than the human body. These are difficult to absorb and can be bad for hydration. If you are well hydrated after a ride they can be used to replenish energy stores.


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