Having a muscle cramp up on you in the middle of a ride sucks. And it hurts. But mostly it sucks as you have to stop and hope that it goes away long enough to let you ride out.
You can’t come into a ride in a chronically dehydrated state and expect to perform consistently.
It sucks even more if you’re out in the middle of nowhere with no idea exactly how far away you are from civilization and only half a bottle of water left. Which is exactly what happened to me on my first mountain bike ride.
Now, at the time I didn’t really think of it as mountain biking. I was just riding my old Nishiki Bravo fully rigid bike around some old jeep roads when visiting my grandparents in Oklahoma. While I had only used the bike to commute around town, one day I was bored and decided go pedal around the woods.
Long story short, I was grossly under-prepared for the summer heat and how much I was going to sweat. I found myself severely dehydrated and suffering from the worst quad cramps ever – I literally couldn’t get them to bend and they hurt like hell.
Luckily I had half my bottle of water left and drinking it got my quads to relax. I was able to get moving again. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do if I cramped like that again with no more water left but luckily I found a short cut back to my grandparents house and didn’t have to find out.
When I got into mountain biking for real a few years later I remembered that episode and swore I’d never let it happen again. This is why I take my hydration pretty seriously.
More than just cramps…
Even if you don’t suffer from cramping, if you allow yourself to get dehydrated you’ll hurt your performance. For example, a loss of only 2% bodyweight causes a reduction in performance by 10% or more. A fluid loss exceeding 3-5% bodyweight reduces performance by up to 30% while also impairing reaction time, judgment, concentration and decision making – not good things to start losing in the middle of a hard ride.
A quick search on Google will reveal more nasty results from even minor dehydration. If you want to learn even more about the effects of dehydration check out this more in depth article. Either way, hopefully you’re starting to see why staying hydrated is so important.
How much water should you drink?
So now the obvious question becomes how much water should you drink? You’ll get a lot of different answers to this one, ranging from the standard 8 glasses of water a day to a gallon or more. Believe it or not there isn’t a really solid answer to that question.
I personally shoot for 2 liters of water a day, which is a little more than 8 glasses but not as much as a gallon. On the days I sweat a lot from riding or training BJJ I will drink more water but don’t really track how much more, I just try to avoid getting thirsty. I don’t count what water I drink during riding/ training towards my 2 liter goal, it is just used to replace what I sweated out.
While I’ve always been pretty good about my hydration I’ve recently started doing 2 things to help me be more consistent with it and improve my results from it.
Two simple hydration tips…
First, I bought myself a 2 liter container that I fill up each morning and put in the fridge. I know that by the end of the day I have to have at least drank that container. It gives me a brainless way to keep track of it instead of trying to count how many times I’ve refilled my water bottle.
Second, I’ve started adding 1 pinch of unrefined sea salt per liter of water. Adding a pinch of unrefined sea salt is supposed to help your body better absorb and utilize the water you drink. This means you pee less of it out so you can get more out of the water you do drink.
Obviously the sea salt advice doesn’t apply to riders who still look at fast food as a food group. They need to work on cutting out sodium from their diets and adding more may not be the best idea. Adding a pinch of unrefined sea salt to your water while you’re pounding down a Big Mac and fries is missing the point.
But for those of us that have our diet under control then this is something I’d suggest checking out. You can get unrefined sea salt at any natural foods store and it is pretty cheap. Just make sure you get unrefined sea salt – which contains 50-70+ minerals and trace minerals – and not plain table salt, which is just plain sodium chloride.
Hydration matters more in the heat.
If you’re one of the many riders dealing with cramping as the weather heats up then make sure you are drinking at least 2 liters of water per day (more on the days you ride) and add a pinch of unrefined sea salt to each liter of water you drink. You can’t come into a ride in a chronically dehydrated state and expect to perform consistently.
Also, make sure you drink plenty of water on the trail and don’t lose too much sweat before you start drinking to replace it. Have a re-hydration strategy when you ride and don’t just wait until you get thirsty. Once the effects of dehydration have set in you’ll have to work even harder to maintain the same pace, making early hydration critical to late ride performance.
Making sure you have your basic hydration needs down is the first step to being a consistent performer on the trail. Plus, it is one of the easiest things you can do to improve your performance. Try these two simple tips and if you have any that you’ve found helpful please post a comment sharing them, I’d love to hear it.