Cyclists, like all athletes, need plenty of liquids. But beyond that basic tenet, things get murky fast—and for years, riders have heard conflicting reports about what, when and how much to drink. So we tapped our best resources, from the latest research to sports nutrition expert Monique Ryan, RD, author of Sports Nutrition for Endurance Athletes, to separate the facts from the hype. Here’s what we found.
Hype: REPLACE EVERY LOST OUNCE For years cyclists have been told to drink enough on the bike so they weigh the same after the ride as they did beforehand. The truth is, your body can’t absorb fluids as fast as it loses them, and not every ounce of weight is lost through sweat anyway.
Truth: KEEP UP WITH SWEAT LOSS—MOSTLY Replace about 75 percent of lost sweat during a long ride. “To do that, you need to know your sweat rate,” says Ryan, who recently coached a heavy-sweating triathlete who routinely lost 40 ounces of fluid an hour. To determine your sweat rate, weigh yourself before and after a short ride. “An hour ride is a good indicator of what you’re losing through sweat alone,” Ryan says.
Hype: OVERFLOW BEFOREHAND Guzzling gallons of fluids before a ride or race will do little more than send you searching for rest stops.
Truth: TOP OFF AS YOU GO Sip a 16-ounce sports drink an hour or two before you saddle up. That’s enough time for your body to absorb what it needs and eliminate what it doesn’t. Then take in about six to eight ounces (two to three gulps) every 15 to 20 minutes while you ride.
Hype: CAFFEINE WILL DEHYDRATE YOU Caffeine has long been demonized as a diuretic. On paper, that means it should lead to dehydration and heat stress, especially when you consider that it also raises your heart rate and increases your metabolism.
Truth: CAFFEINE IMPROVES CARB BURNING A review of ongoing research recently revealed that caffeinated drinks don’t make you pee that much more than equal amounts of beverages without the buzz. The stimulant also doesn’t worsen the effects of summertime heat. In fact, caffeine makes you feel better. Numerous studies have shown that it lowers your rate of perceived exertion while improving your strength, endurance and mental performance. Even better, researchers from the University of Birmingham, in England, found that riders who drank a caffeinated sports beverage burned the drink’s carbs 26 percent faster than those who consumed a noncaffeinated sports drink, likely because caffeine speeds glucose absorption in the intestine.
Hype: YOU NEED MORE PROTEIN Initially, carbohydrates were the essential building blocks of the sports beverage. Then protein muscled its way onto the scene, after early studies showed that carb-protein blends seemed to shoot into the bloodstream and enhance endurance cycling performance better than carb-only beverages.
Truth: YOU NEED A LITTLE PROTEIN. . .MAYBE Recent research on 10 trained cyclists performing an 80K trial showed that riders drinking carb-only beverages did just as well as those drinking carb-protein beverages, and both groups did better than those consuming flavored water. However, the International Society of Sports Nutrition recently reported that taking in branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) during vigorous aerobic exercise can decrease muscle damage and depletion. “If you’re on a long ride where you’re also eating, you’ll be taking in protein already,” says Ryan, “so it’s likely not necessary to also have it in your drink.”
Hype: HYDRATION DURING EXERCISE IS THE BE-ALL AND END-ALL Big beverage companies would have you grabbing your sports drink during every ride, no matter how long or short the effort, lest you suffer the ill effects of dehydration.
Truth: DRINKING EVERY DAY IS ESSENTIAL ”Your first priority should be staying on top of your daily hydration,” says Ryan. Research on gym-goers found that nearly half began their workouts in a dehydrated state. “Many people don’t consume enough fluids during the day,” Ryan says. “If you hydrate properly on a regular basis, you won’t need to worry as much about getting dehydrated during a typical moderate ride.” The old eight-glasses-a-day dictum is a good guidepost.