2 Simple Tips to Help You Stay Hydrated and Avoid Cramps

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?

14_Hydration01So 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…

Screen Shot 2013-05-06 at 11.55.48 AMFirst, 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.unrefined-sea-salt

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.

-James Wilson-

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  1. Christopher Kelly says:

    I used to think like this too. Then I read the book by the world’s leading expert rather than one of those old papers funded by Gatorade.

    Reply • May 6 at 2:48 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      I guess I’m a little confused – what exactly is wrong with this advice based on that book? Is 2 liters of water a day considered overhydrating? I’m also not sure about the Gatorade comment, the study I linked to looked at dehydration in term of water loss and not in terms of using a sports drink. No where in this post or the study I linked to was Gatorade recommended or mentioned.

      Sorry if I am missing something but I’m really lost as to the point of your comment. If you could elaborate a bit as to how this advice is off and what we should be doing I would really appreciate it.

      Reply • May 6 at 4:11 pm
  2. cookie says:

    I think Christopher is suggesting hyponatremia due to excessive water consumption. We had some media coverage here in Sydney recently as there has been a death of a football player due to it.
    His reference to gatorade is the marketing genius of using poor science to convince people to drink fluids excessively. I see it alot with runners, they are frightened of getting ‘dehydrated’ and pound down fluid.

    Your advice is sound, as with most things a bit of common sense goes a long way 🙂 Its easy to actually measure fluid loss and calculate the amount you need to replace while riding, for me its around 1L / hour (and a pinch of salt).

    Reply • May 6 at 4:24 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      I agree that you can take it too far but you don’t want to give people the impression that dehydration isn’t something to think about either. Moderation is the key, which it sounds like we agree on.

      Reply • May 7 at 3:55 pm
  3. rick says:

    Good review of Waterlogged here – quick and informative read. Not conflicting with your advice just more information about the science and misunderstandings of it. I learned a lot just from the review. The comments afterward are also informative and thoughtful.
    Thanks for all your work!

    Reply • May 6 at 5:07 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Thanks for the link, it sounds like a good resource to get some perspective on the subject.

      Reply • May 7 at 3:55 pm
  4. Christopher Kelly says:

    Read the book, it’s fascinating. Cookie is right but what I was really getting at is the idea that we should be using anything other than thirst to guide our fluid intake. The book also shows how cramp is not caused by dehydration. Finally it describes massive over consumption of salt, even athletes need only 3g per day. All this is based on research conducted on thousands of iron man triathletes and marathon runners conducted by the author.

    Sorry to come over as a comments troll, I should add that your strength training programs have been game changing for me. The TRX program I bought has been particularly successful for me. Many thanks.

    Reply • May 6 at 6:15 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Like I said in my reply to Cookie, I think we can agree that you can take it too far but you also don’t want to give people the impression that dehydration isn’t something to watch out for. And, in my experience, most riders could do with better daily hydration and aren’t in danger of over-hydrating. Sounding the alarm bells because a minority of people will take the advice too far isn’t going to help the majority who still need to get some hydration.

      Glad you like the programs and thanks for clarifying your thoughts.

      Reply • May 7 at 4:02 pm
  5. Mark Fenner says:

    Hey James, As a guy who sweats profusely I need to be keenly aware of my H20 and sodium intake or else I risk cramping. I stumbled on this trick after riding the Monument for the first time about 12 yrs ago where I cramped half way trough and was in misery for the next 6 hours. I heard about this from a trainer at Syracuse University who’s football team was suffering from cramping during hot early season games. The secret sauce, “pickle juice”. He would give the players a shot before the game and at halftime. For me, I grab the pickle jar before a ride and down a couple of dill shots along with my normal H20 intake and I’m good to go. Problem solved. I do like the idea of the sea salt as it is probably healthier than the juice.

    Reply • May 6 at 9:48 pm
  6. deedubs says:

    A pinch? Experiment with a “pour” and see how you feel.

    There is near-zero evidence that salt is bad for you. As far as I know, the only ill effect of high (reasonable) amounts of salt is a risk of slightly elevated blood pressure, in people who are already overweight and out of shape. Don’t believe me? Try to find a scientific study showing negative effects of high salt.

    I’m waiting.

    And no, surveys of people that find a CORRELATION between ill health and fast food do not prove that salt is bad for you.

    Reply • May 6 at 10:25 pm
  7. Mark Pitts says:

    James, I have learnt the hard way about Hydration….a very hard way! Did a trail ride last year that did not seem to be an overly hot day as the breeze was keeping me cool. Got home, had a quick drink but no where near enough then snoozed for a couple of hours. Woke up with painful cramps so walked to the kitchen to get a drink but felt very faint.

    Woke up in an ambulance as I had fainted and fallen straight back onto hard kitchen tiles, severe concussion and 10 stitches and an overnight stay in Hospital.

    8 Weeks later after not feeling right, 5 doctors said it will get better and A&E said it was whiplash I paid for an MRI scan and they discovered a Chronic Sub Dural Hematoma, rushed into a major hospital for an emergency operation.

    All fine now but you can hear me out on the trails as all the water I carry sloshes around, all from not drinking enough and listening correctly to my body.

    With summer coming, even if its not sunny make sure you all drink enough and keep hydrated even after the ride has finished!

    Reply • May 8 at 4:28 am
  8. Marc Fernandez says:

    Hi James, although I’ve been using the same hydration strategy (2l on and off the bike) for the last two years, I’ve been lately suffering from cramps. I’m a common rider who takes whatever chance to go out and ride with his friends, nothing to be with competition.
    At first the issue came just from pedaling for hours, my muscles “burned”, but I changed my feeding (vegetables, fruit and nuts) and hydration (electrolytes supplement) habits and the situation improved. But lately cramps start bothering me after a long and technical trail as I get more confident and faster. From that moment on the rest of the ride becomes a nightmare. If I had to guess I would say that my problems come from what you call the High Tension Cardio in your posts, but I just want to be sure what to work on. Thanks!

    Reply • May 20 at 6:31 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      I just posted a new article on this, check it out and let me know if you have more questions.

      Reply • May 20 at 10:42 am
  9. Jem Cullen says:

    I did a ride this weekend and cramped up very early like an hour into the ride. It was a cold day and I was hydrated. Could the fact that I have just come off a course of antibiotics & not ridden for 10 days caused the cramp? I did do a hard leg workout on the Tuesday, spinning on Thursday & raced on Sunday, (when I cramped).

    Reply • May 21 at 8:49 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      There are a lot of factors at play but that probably didn’t help.

      Reply • May 21 at 11:57 am
  10. marc prado says:

    I cramp so bad when I ride XC. I just recently had a four enduro race and I felt the cramps coming on late into my second lap. before the start of the third lap I rehydrated and drank more water and hit it again. By this time I was done! The cramps intensified and I wasn’t able to stand and pedal. And it always happens to me at the thirty mile mark. Whether its on flat and fast trails or where lots of climbing is involved.

    Reply • July 2 at 11:17 am
  11. Jim says:

    One thing I don’t hear anyone mentioning is what they are doing when cramps occur. I get cramps from time to time while riding-usually calf or quad when I am “saving” a near crash. That extra exertion to keep from going down will do it. For hydration I have had really good luck using Skratch labs mix. Its low carb and does not gunk up my camelback. Not cheap though.

    Reply • May 16 at 10:24 am
  12. Wade says:

    What is your opinion of adding a pinch of no-salt salt – it is made from potassium?

    Reply • May 16 at 9:58 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Just use salt, the whole sodium thing is over-hyped anyways and been debunked so there is no need to use something else.

      Reply • May 17 at 9:56 am
  13. Duncan Rosie says:

    Started cramping up thighs and calves on a 30km ride last weekend but it was due to lowering my saddle height (trying to get better going downhill). Time to invest in a dropper post I guess.
    Thanks for all the tips and advice, helps get me off the couch and on my bike!

    Reply • July 16 at 11:36 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Dropper posts are awesome and a great investment. Glad the blog helps motivate you to get out more, enjoying riding more is what it is all about.

      Reply • July 18 at 12:32 pm
  14. Gary B Bowser says:

    I can ride the same trail regularly for training with no cramping issues. Then on race day, I cramp mid race. This happens often. Are there other factors at play?

    Reply • May 10 at 7:26 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      There are a lot of other factors that can come into play but breathing is one that can play a role. It is very common for the stress of competition to show up as disrupted breathing patterns, which can affect your metabolic environment and lead to cramping. I’ve got some posts on the site about breathing if you need some ideas, hope this helps.

      Reply • May 15 at 2:20 pm
  15. John Williamson says:

    Rather than sea salt, you might try elete. It’s an add-in and I use it every day. Kinda like unrefined sea salt on steroids.

    Reply • May 10 at 7:31 am
  16. Alan Mcclunie says:

    There is an awesome book out called the salt fix by Dr james DiNicolantonio that tells the real story about salt needs in our bodies and the best salt to use .I put one teaspoon in a liter of water with a little lemon juice and love it, he figures your will lose a teaspoon after a good sweat for an hour it made a big diffeence for me. It has to be good salt the best is REDMOND REAL SALT very pure and has good level of iodine

    Reply • May 10 at 7:53 am

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