Many of us obsess over our fitness, our nutrition, even our chamois–but what about hydration?! Proper cycling hydration is one of the most vital components of our performance on the bike, and yet we usually don’t spend nearly enough time thinking about it.
The good news is that it doesn’t take much effort to determine what and how much you should be drinking, and with proper hydration, you will have a noticeable improvement on the bike. In this article we’ll explain the role proper hydration plays in performance, how much you should drink, what you should drink, and how to carry all that liquid.
Why Hydration Matters So Much
If you think proper hydration doesn’t make that much of a difference on a ride (or in race), think again. Water loss can decrease cardiovascular function, make it more difficult for you to maintain proper body temperature (thermoregulation), decrease your maximal aerobic power (VO2max), and impair flood flow.
Turns out hydration is pretty important, right? And you’re probably losing more water while biking than you even realize.
It’s easy for cyclist to lose 1/2 to 2 liters of water PER HOUR while riding. The exact amount you’re losing is dependent on the intensity of your effort, the temperature and how acclimated you are to it, how humid it is, your fitness level, and your genetic predisposition for sweating.
However much you’re losing, if you don’t replace enough of that loss, your performance will start to decline pretty quickly.
How To Know How Much You Need To Drink
There are three ways to judge if you are drinking enough water (or other liquid) while you ride. Whichever method you use, you’ll want to pay attention to how much you drink during your ride.
The Pee Method
In the first scenario, just pay attention to the color of your pee during and after your ride. Is it bright yellow? Drink more water on your next ride. If it’s clear, you’re (probably) drinking enough water.
The only problem with this method is that if you’re drinking lots of water while riding, your pee will probably come out clear, regardless of whether or not your body is actually retaining and using that water.
The Scale Method
Many coaches recommend the scale method. This involves weighing yourself before and after your ride. Get naked and note your weight both times.
How much weight did you lose while riding? For every kilogram lost (convert pounds to kilograms via Google), you need an additional 1 liter of water to rehydrate.
You can also use this information to determine your sweat rate, so you know how much you need to drink on your next ride. Use this formula:
[ Pre-ride weight (in kilograms) – post-ride weight + fluid intake during your ride (in liters)] / time (in hours) = sweat rate (liters/hr)
For example, I weigh 125 pounds before riding which converts to 56.7 kg. After my last ride, I weighed 123 pounds (55.8 kg). During my ride, I drank 1.5 liters of water and rode for 3 hours. Plugging this into our formula, I get:
(56.7 – 55.8 + 1.5) / 3 = 0.8 L
This means, that I lost 0.8L of water for every hour I rode. Now, I know I need to drink around this amount of fluid per hour while I ride.
If I keep a journal doing this under different temperature and intensity levels, I can get a good idea of how much water (or sports drink) I need to bring with me (and actually drink!) on a specific ride.
The Body Weight Method
Some critics of the scale method argue that it can ’cause riding to actually overdrink. Instead, they recommend using your weight as a way to roughly guage how much water you should be drinking.
In this method, for every pound you weigh, you should drink 0.1 ounces of water per hour if the temperature is below 75 degrees, and 0.15 ounces of water per pound per hour if the temperature is above 75 degrees.
That means, as a 125 pound woman I should be drinking between 12.5 oz (0.36L) and 18.75 oz (0.55L) per hour. Note that this is slightly less water than using the scale method above.
At the end of the day, I’d recommend doing some combination of all three of these methods to try and dial in the amount of water that results in the best performance for you.
Hydrating Before A Ride
You certainly don’t want to START a ride dehydrated. For this reason, you should make sure you are drinking plenty of water throughout the day. (This is important for lots of health reasons that have nothing to do with cycling performance as well).
I also like to drink a full glass of water 15-30 minutes before I leave for a ride so that my tank is topped off. (Just make sure to get a pair of cycling shorts that are easy to get on and off for pee breaks).
Hydrating During Your Ride
Now that you know how much water you need to be drinking during a ride, the key is to figure out how to actually get yourself to drink that much. (If we wait for thirst cues, most of us won’t drink nearly enough). Here are some tips:
- Make your water palatable. Your more likely to drink if your water is appealing. We tend to drink more water if it’s cold, so add some ice cubes to your bottles or use an insulated bottle. Additionally, you may want to squeeze some lemon juice into your bottle or use one of the sports drinks listed later. If the liquid tastes good, you’re more likely to hydrate.
- Set a timer. Set a timer on your phone or watch to remind you to drink every 10-15 minutes. Once you get in the habit, you won’t need to use a timer anymore.
- Make your water accessible. Plenty of riders don’t drink enough while riding just because they’re afraid to pull out a bottle and drink while moving. If that’s you, practice your drinking and riding skills by just cruising around the neighborhood or practicing on a ride by yourself. If you still struggle with bottles, then try a hydration pack or hip pack (more on that later).
Hydrating After Your Ride
Remember to weigh yourself after your ride! For every 1 kilogram lost, make sure to drink (about) 1 liter of fluid.
Don’t do this all at once. Sip water over the next several hours until you’ve become rehydrated.
Best Hydration Drinks For Cycling
Water is all you need for shorter rides and/or lower intensity rides. When you are doing multi-hour rides, however, or training at high intensity, then you are better served by a hydration drink that offers sodium as well as a small amount of glucose.
Unfortunately, the drink that most of us think of when we think of a sports drink–Gatorade–is not what we should be drinking at all. Gatorade, and other drinks like it, have way too much fructose and sucrose (which can cause gastrointestinal distress) and not enough carbohydrates.
According to Dr. Stacy Sims in her book ROAR*, the optimal hydration drink for cycling includes 180-225mg of sodium, 7-9 g of glucose, 60-75 mg of potassium, and 3-4% carbohydrate solution (per 8oz). Examples of drink that follow this optimal mix include:
How To Carry Water While Riding
The most common way to carry water while cycling is via water bottles. Wide mouth water bottles that are easy to clean and fill work best.
My personal favorite water bottles are the Camelback bottles that lock closed, so I don’t lose any water via leakage. And in hot wheather, I like the Polar bottles that help keep water cold longer.
Water bottles can be stashed in cages on your bike as well as in jersey pockets. If doing the latter, opt for a jersey with deep pockets as bottles will stay in more securely and won’t fall out. Not quite as common, but you can also find bib shorts with rear pockets and base layers with pockets for bottles.
Cycling hydration packs are another option. Although these are most frequently used for mountain biking, there’s no rule saying you can’t use them on the road as well. Hyrdration packs traditionally look a lot like a backpack, but fanny pack style hip packs are now a thing as well.
For longer distance rides, especially ones without places to fill up with water, you may also want to consider frame bags or panniers to stash water. In these, you can add a bladder or soft bottles to hold lots of water.
Filling Up Water On Rides
It’s not always possible to bring enough water along, especially on long rides. If that’s the case for you, here are some of our go-to tricks for getting more water along the way.
- Gas stations. Ask if there’s a tap inside or a hose outside you can use. If you can’t score any free water, you can always resort to buying some.
- Parks. Unless it’s below freezing, you’ll usually be able to find a drinking fountain or water spout at a public park.
- Churches. Fill up at a an outside spigot at any churches you ride by. I’ve never had a church turn me away, and have even been offered cookies and other goodies.
- Campgrounds. If you’re mountain biking, many trails run right through campgrounds. This is always a great place to fill up with water.
- Streams. When riding in remote areas, you could consider carrying a water filter or purifier to clean water for drinking.