In the Tour de France’s golden age, cyclists would barge into cafes along the race route to steal bottles of sparkling water and shocking quantities of beer, wine, and champagne. In the modern era, hydration is scientifically planned, carefully executed, and essential for any rider chasing the yellow jersey. A lot has changed in half a century.
As you watch the world’s best cyclists race around France, you’ll see impressive feats from the high-altitude climbs to the high-speed sprints. Face it, they are on another level, compared to mere mortals like us. However, we can learn a few things from these pro riders when it comes to hydration.
We got in touch with the hydration experts at Skratch Labs to find out how Tour riders handle the immense demands of a 21-day race through the summer heat. Then, we boiled it down into three key tips to help you hydrate more effectively on your rides.
Photo: Greg Erwin
Drink to thirst
Each and every one of us actually has the same finely-tuned hydration sensor as a rider in the Tour — our perception of thirst. Generally speaking, you don’t need to overcomplicate things. Trust your body to tell you when it is time to drink, and you’ll be hydrated correctly for most activities, apart from extreme efforts in extreme heat.
“We say drink when you’re thirsty; eat when you’re hungry. Don’t force yourself to drink much beyond thirst. The thirst mechanism is a pretty dialed-in physiological response to when you need liquid,” says Elliot Freeman, Skratch’s VP of Marketing.
“Our sport hydration mix is designed to replace what the average person loses in sweat. As long as you drink that to thirst, that’s our go-to recommendation, but this needs to be adapted to the individual. Try weighing yourself before and after your ride or race, if you’re losing more than three percent of your body weight, you’re not drinking enough — concentrate your hydration a little bit more to add a little more salt and drive more thirst. But, don’t just drink more to keep up with a scale if you’re not thirsty. If you’re losing less than 3% or not losing anything, you’re drinking enough,” says Mark Siebert, Skratch Lab’s Manager of Customer Experience.
“A bottle an hour is a good starting point. We always tell people you’re kind of your own experiment. Start with a baseline, see how you feel in your effort, try something different the next time, and play with it a little bit.”
Don’t be scared of sodium (or sugar)
Salt gets a bad rap in mainstream nutrition education. As athletes, it is an essential electrolyte that has to be replenished throughout the course of a workout. Water alone can’t do that.
“Our strongest advice is that you can’t hydrate with just water for long workouts. The way it works is that you need to keep your blood sodium levels in balance. One of the things that drives that balance is your thirst. When the blood sodium concentration goes up, we get thirsty. If we only drank water, over a long period of time, our thirst mechanism would keep us from replacing all the water we lost to maintain sodium balance, causing us to dehydrate and potentially hurting our performance. Still, the alternative of over-drinking beyond thirst and diluting our blood sodium is even worse and can lead to some serious problems. Skratch was built on the philosophy that you need to replace what you lose, and that includes both water and electrolytes; when you do that, thirst becomes a great regulator of both sodium balance and water balance,” says Freeman.
“Sugar is also important. We don’t put the sugar in our hydration mixes just to make it taste better. It actually helps with the absorption of water into the bloodstream. You don’t just absorb water through osmosis, the absorption of water can also be facilitated through the active transport of sodium and glucose across the gut. Basically, when the sugar and sodium in our sports drink mix is transported across the gut, that action also helps pull in a lot of water.”
Always consider the salt you'll lose through perspiration when planning your hydration strategy. Photo: Greg Erwin
Prioritize pre- and post-race hydration
Like every other aspect of cycling, preparation and planning pay off when it comes to hydration. It’s great to have your bottles ready for a ride with the right electrolyte mix, but your hydration starts well before you clip in. Plan to hydrate before a big day like a race, and also, get organized and have a post-race hydration plan ready to go when you finish.
“One tip that Allen [Lim] taught me that I see constantly is that almost everybody is drinking an entire bottle either at the start line or, in the case of a race like the Tour, in the neutral section. Most races don’t have a neutral start, but in the Tour, you’ve got sometimes like 10 kilometers where you’re parading through town, and people will drink a whole bottle there. That’s in addition to two bottles on the bike they have. Everybody does that in the race,” says Ian MacGregor, an ex-pro rider and Skratch’s CEO.
“The real pros also do a great job with recovery. That is also about hydration. Eat real food to get 1,000 calories back within that first hour post-ride or so, and also in the first 20 minutes drink a very large bottle that’s in shake form that has not only super-simple sugars, carbohydrates, but also has sodium and water content. That hydration is really important.”
Every cyclist has different hydration needs — how different? Skratch goes so far as to test pro cyclists’ sweat to tell how much salt per liter of sweat they lose. They use that data to plan different concentrations of sports nutrition so each rider can replace what they’ve lost. You don’t have to go that high-tech (or gross and sweaty).
The point is that you should experiment in daily training to find the right hydration for yourself. Keep these three basic tips in mind as you do that and you’ll be happy and well-hydrated for your own personal version of the Tour de France.