How To Avoid Dehydration While Mountain Biking
Last weekend was the Bicycle Plus Blowout cross-country race here in Dallas Texas. It was a great race and I had a ton of fun racing, but I watched as racer after racer began to suffer from dehydration and heat related issues. I even watched as one man had to be carried the last 2 miles of the course by another rider, he was so worn down from the high heat that he couldn’t stand up. This was the first really hot day this year in Dallas with temperatures reaching 100+ degrees on the ground.
Dehydration while mountain biking is a serious concern for any athlete during the Texas summer. Especially for any athlete competing in an endurance event. Prolonged exposure to the heat can hurt not only your health, but also your general performance on the bike as well. The water in your body is like the oil in your car, when it gets low your performance suffers. Being sure that you stay hydrated will keep your body temperature from soaring and your heart rate spiking, as well as preventing cramps, early fatigue, dizziness and a whole slew of other problems.
I did some research into the best ways to tell if you are dehydrated as well as how to help prepare yourself. I even got some tips from Thomas Jensen, the President of Elect Wellness an elite personal training company based within DFW. Thomas is also a passionate mountain biker who raced at the Bicycle Plus Blowout and saw first hand how dehydration affected the racers there.
Am I Dehydrated?
Most people think that when they are thirsty, then they need to drink. But here’s the deal, thirst is not a good gauge of your hydration! By the time you realize that you’re thirsty you are most likely already suffering from slight dehydration. The best indicator you can use is the color of your urine. The Mayo Clinic has this rule to live by:
“Clear or light-colored urine means you’re well hydrated, whereas a dark yellow or amber color usually signals dehydration.”
As you drink more water it will begin to dilute the color of your urine, eventually turning it to a clear or nearly clear color. You may be making a trip to the bathroom every 30 minutes, but this is a good thing and it means you are ready to hit the trails.
not a substitute way to gauge your level of hydration is the prominence of your blood veins in your arms. If you can very clearly see your veins and your urine is clear, then you are ready to ride. This really only works for people with very low body fat, so If you don’t really notice a change in your veins but your urine is still clear you should be ready to go.
Hydrating Before Getting On The Bike
Hydration starts long before you ever sit down on your mountain bike, especially here in Texas. To get yourself to a level of proper hydration, especially prior to a race, you need to start at least 48 hours to 72 hours before getting on the bike. If you race on Sunday morning, then start drinking water on Thursday or at least Friday. Your goal is to have clear urine for those three days so that you aren’t guzzling water right before your race starts.
Here’s what Thomas Jensen had to say about starting your hydration ahead of time.
“The best idea, to be thoroughly hydrated before something like a mountain bike race, is to drink plenty of water throughout each day starting 2-3 days before your event. The more you can spread your water intake out, just like carbohydrate intake, the more will be absorbed into your cells instead of wasted.
It doesn’t take too long for water to be absorbed into the bloodstream. Drink 44oz of water and you’ll realize that it hits your bladder within an hour. Since your kidneys filter your blood and fill your bladder, rest assured the water made it to your blood.
However … this doesn’t mean that your body’s cells are well hydrated.
You see, cellular hydration is a more lengthy process that involves fluid osmosis across cellular membranes. The rate of this fluid uptake and the amount your cells will hold depend in part on your mineral balance. For example, the more potassium your cells contain, the better the water uptake. The more sodium in your blood, conversely, the more you will pull water out of your cells, increasing blood volume and decreasing cellular hydration. This is why people with very high sodium intake and a lack of dietary potassium often suffer from high blood pressure and low energy. The amount of glycogen (stored glucose) in your muscle cells also affects the amount of water those cells will hold. Each gram of glycogen stores approximately 3 times as much water. “
You are going to want to stop drinking water roughly 1 hour before your race or ride begins. This should help prevent you from having to pee while on the bike. If you haven’t been drinking water consistently for the days leading up to this point, your blood cells are still going to be short of the water you need. If you just started drinking the morning of the ride or race, your stomach may be full of water but you can still be dehydrated at the cellular level.
With that being said, I will clarify that the point of pre-hydrating isn’t the same as carb-loading. Your body doesn’t store water quite like it does glucose from carbohydrates, instead it is about ensuring that you are fully hydrated at a cellular level. Like Thomas said above, cellular hydration takes a little while and it is best to do it consistently over several days.
While on the bike you need to be drinking water constantly. If you have a nice clear piece of single-track in front of you, reach for that bottle or camelback and drink up. You should aim to consume at least 12 oz of water per hour of riding at a minimum. Drinking 20 oz or more per hour during the summer would be very beneficial.
The best advice is to drink every 10-15 minutes while riding.
You just need a few sips to keep water moving through you. While on the bike you are going to be losing far more water through sweating than you are likely to intake and staying ahead of dehydration is your #1 goal during the summer months.
Supplements To Help Stay Hydrated During Your Ride
I’m not going to make any big recommendations here, I’m not a nutritionist or coach or anything that counts and supplements are a touchy area. But for rides over about 2 hours long you are going to want a little help in staying hydrated and keeping your energy levels up. According to Thomas Jensen “during the race, it’s important to have a little sodium in your hydration beverage of choice“.
Here’s a couple of things I have either tried personally and found to be very helpful, or had highly recommended by very trusted fellow cyclists.
- Pickle Juice – Yep, this is great stuff and it really works. Especially on extremely hot days this is a great trick. I’ve used it on multiple Hotter than Hell Hundred rides and it replenishes your sodium levels after you sweat it all out. It actually tastes pretty decent after all that time on the bike too.
- Salt Tablets – Same basic concept as pickle juice, but in simple easy to take tablets. I’ve used these on some long rides as well, but I strongly prefer pickle juice. The salt tablets can give really do a number on your stomach if you aren’t used to them and it’s not a fun experience when that happens.
- Gatorade or Sports Drinks – These are made to replenish the electrolytes that you lose during your ride. The best thing about these is that they are readily available at pretty much every convenience store if you happen to pass one on a ride, probably won’t happen while mountain biking, but it’s very easy on a road ride.
- Skratch Labs Hydration – This is a new product developed by Form Garmin and Team Radioshack coach Dr. Allen Lim. He got sick of the typical products that were filled with artificial ingredients that turn in your stomach. I haven’t personally tried this yet but I have heard some great stuff and just check out some of these reviews that other big names in cycling have given them.
Things That Make You Dehydrated
The last piece of advice that Thomas Jensen gave me was about avoiding products that actually increase how dehydrated you are.
“Don’t forget to avoid diuretics like caffeine, alcohol, and stimulant pills, which will only rob your body of its water storage potential by draining the blood before the cells get their thirst satisfied. So drink water, drink early, and drink often. You’ll be glad you did!“
It’s true, and unfortunately I am an absolute caffeine junkie drinking nearly an entire pot of coffee every morning by myself. Alcohol, caffeine and stimulative substances actually increase the rate you become dehydrated at. So be cautious if or when you drink these before a race or ride this summer.
Symptoms of Dehydration
Here is a list of the symptoms to watch out for while you are riding.
- Feeling extremely thirsty
- Tiredness or irritability
- Dry sticky mouth and skin
- Lack of sweating
- Little or no urination and dark yellow or amber-colored urine
What To Do If You Are Dehydrated
If you begin suffering from any of the symptoms listed above you need to immediately seek shade, get off of your bike, and drink water. Don’t chug your water, but drink it calmly and slowly while you relax and let your heart rate drop back to normal. Once you have a normal heart rate or begin feeling less irritable and frustrated you can climb back on your bike and head back, but be sure to continue drinking along the way and pedal slowly. If you try to push too hard you could end up facing a serious health concern and have to seek medical attention. Doctors and emergency rooms see plenty of patients because of dehydration and heat related symptoms each summer, don’t go pushing yourself again and become one of their unhappily paying customers.
That concludes this guide to avoiding dehydration while mountain biking. Special thanks to Thomas Jensen from Elect Wellness in helping me put together this guide. I hope that it helps you better prepare yourself for riding this summer. If you have any additional tips or advice, leave a comment below. I make sure I always respond to every comment that comes in. If you have any other questions about mountain biking, contact us over at the Texas Mountain Bike Trails Facebook page. Now get out there and ride!
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