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What to drink when riding in the heat

There’s nothing like a hot summer’s day to inspire a cyclist to get outside, but don’t let your passion for the pedals distract you from hydrating on the move...

Human beings are 60% water, so it’s no surprise we need the wet stuff for tip-top performance. The experts who look after pro cycling teams take hydration very seriously and will weigh riders and analyse urine samples to make sure they’re drinking plenty of water and not compromising their win or ability to recover. So, whether you’re going for gold or beating your own PB, it’s important to keep sipping.

How much to drink on the bike

Before we talk about what to drink when you’re riding in the summer months, let’s consider how much liquid you should be taking in. Here’s where you get to have a go at being your own coach and do what the pros call a ‘sweat test’. When you’re well hydrated, weigh yourself, note down that weight and then go on a 60-minute ride, making sure you stick to your normal speed and intensity (also, don’t drink anything else!). When you’re done, quickly dry yourself and hop on the scales again. The difference between the two weights in grams tells you how much fluid you’ve lost in millilitres, and that’s the amount of liquid you should consume per hour to stay hydrated. Don’t worry if you feel like that’s too much, a minimum of 75% should hold you in good stead. To compare, most riders lose 500-1000ml/hour.

When to drink on the bike

One more thing, and it may seem obvious, but it’s vital you know it. Don’t wait until you’re thirsty to drink when you’re out on your bike. Remember the mantra ‘little and often’ and have two or three big gulps from your bottle every 15 minutes from the get go. At the end, you should have a recovery drink, packed full of protein and carbs to aid recovery as well as essential electrolytes. More on those in a moment.

What to drink on the bike

If you don’t plan to be on your bike for more than an hour, bog-standard tap water is your best friend. For longer rides, the disadvantages of plain water start to add up – it doesn’t give you energy, it can make you feel sloshy and bloated, and like you’re hydrated when you’re not – so you’ll need to add electrolytes and carbohydrates to the equation.

Electrolytes are salts that include sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium. Your body loses them when it sweats, but since they’re vital for normal cell function, you’ll need to help it out by replacing them through what you drink. Enter sports drinks, readily available in most sports shops and plenty of supermarkets. Each brand or type will be different, so it’s smart to trial a few during your training to find the one that works for you and stick to that for races. Most sports drinks have the correct balance of electrolytes but if you want to refuel without taking on loads more liquid and calories, there are also effervescent electrolyte tablets without any carbohydrates.

When you dissolve your sports drink powder in water, the concentration of the solution will make a difference to how easily it leaves your gut and how quickly you feel hydrated. Here’s some buzz words to look out for and help you decide what’s best for you and your riding scenario:

Isotonic
Best for endurance riding because it replaces lost fluids, supplies your body with carbohydrates and electrolytes and quenches your thirst without putting you off drinking again in another 15 minutes.

Hypotonic
Plain water is hypotonic. It will replace lost fluids very quickly but won’t help with energy or electrolytes. We mentioned it before – this kind of liquid can make you feel full or sloshy and discourage you from drinking more when that’s really what your body needs.

Hypertonic
The hard stuff. Hypertonic solutions are made up of carbohydrates i.e. high calories, so are ideal for long-distance riders, alongside plain water.

Is it possible to drink too much?

Yes. And if all that liquid is just water – rather than a drink with electrolytes – you can actually alter the balance of your body’s fluids, which not only makes you feel uncomfortable and reduces output but can also lead to hyponatremia (low sodium in your blood). Just keep in mind, especially when you’re racing and bombarded with posters telling you to keep drinking, that yes, you do need to replace lost fluid, but you also need to replace those all-important electrolytes too.