Mountain biking is an exciting, fast-paced sport. But in all the excitement, it is important for riders to remember to stay hydrated and consume the best calories to maintain health, energy, focus and strength throughout the ride.
Here we’ll take a look at the role of hydration and food during your ride and explore the risks of neglecting either one. Finally, we’ll share practical tips and advice to ensure you’re eating and drinking as you should be on the trail.
Why does hydration matter?
According to USGS, 70% of the human brain is water. Our lungs are 90% water and 83% of blood is water. As Julia Layton states, hydration is “necessary for the distribution of oxygen and nutrients throughout the body, and it allows the body to cool itself by sweating.”
Collegiate athletic trainer, Darren Board, says that riders can “lose up to 67 ounces of fluid per hour during physical activity.”
Becoming dehydrated on a ride carries some serious risks, including poor judgment, depletion of energy and even dizziness – all of which can carry serious consequences on the trail.
Dehydration can also cause muscle cramping – the quads are commonly a victim of this. Muscle cramps can really cramp (sorry…I had to) your ride. In the best-case scenario, the cramp will pass after consuming some water, after massaging the affected area or just over time. But this still means time out of your ride and pain on the bike.
In addition to these issues, a lack of proper hydration can impact your performance on the bike. According to author and professional mountain bike coach, James Wilson, a loss of only 2% bodyweight causes “a reduction in performance by 10% or more.” Furthermore, a fluid loss exceeding 3-5% bodyweight “reduces performance by up to 30% while also impairing reaction time, judgment, concentration and decision making.” Some pretty key functions and abilities when riding, right?
How much to drink
Mountain bikers should drink water constantly during a ride, regardless of the temperature or conditions. While every person is different and the optimal amount of fluids varies, a general guideline for the minimum amount of fluids riders should consume is 16 ounces prior to a ride, 20 ounces per hour during the ride and 16 ounces after the ride.
What to drink and what not to drink
Obviously, water is #1. Avoid caffeinated beverages before, during and after a ride. These include soft drinks, tea and coffee. Alcohol should also be avoided as both caffeine and alcohol are diuretics and will cause you to lose precious water.
For most shorter rides, water alone should be sufficient. But on longer rides, plan to supplement with a sports drink. According to Performance Bicycle, sports drinks are important on long rides because they “help to replenish essential carbohydrates, electrolytes and calories that you use during exercise.” Sports drinks come in a variety of forms and flavors. From ready-to-drink liquids to powders and tablets, you’re sure to find a sports drink or electrolyte-enhanced drink supplement that works for you. A couple of notable products include Nuun and the paleo-friendly electrolyte replacement add-in, Elete. Darren Board recommends a drink that offers salt and 6-8% carbohydrates with a reasonable amount of calories (40–150 per serving) as a good starting point for a drink mix.
Want to make your own sports drink? Bicycling’s Allison Young recommends the following do-it-yourself, recipe (also paleo-friendly):
1 cup coconut water
1/2 cup pomegranate juice
1/2 cup water
1/8 teaspoon organic sea salt
1,000 mg carnitine tartrate
(found in vitamin and health food stores)
How to drink
There is a multitude of options on the market for hydration systems (for more information, check out our extensive article on hydrations systems). There is no one-size-fits-all hydration product or system – you may prefer water bottles, while others may find that a hydration pack is the way to go.
While there is no right or wrong method for staying hydrated – it only matters that you are staying adequately hydrated – it is important to consider the type of riding you’ll be doing and the duration of your ride when planning your hydration. For example, if a three-hour ride is on the agenda, one or even two water bottles will not be sufficient. Most water bottles hold 24 ounces or less. For longer rides, a hydration pack may be a good solution as they can hold much more liquid – some models hold 100 ounces or more!
If weight or bulk is a concern, you might evaluate your route for stops where you can refill your bottle(s) or hydration pack reservoir.
Basic hydration guidelines
Performance Bicycle offers the following basic hydration guidelines:
- For rides less than 1 hour, drink at least 16oz. of plain water before you ride, and carry and consume a 16-24oz. bottle of plain water or an energy drink. Drink at least 16oz. of plain water or a recovery drink (per manufacturer recommendations) after your ride.
- For rides of 1-2 hours, drink at least 16oz. of plain water or a pre-ride energy drink before you ride. Carry and consume one 16-24oz. bottle of plain water, plus an extra 16-24oz. bottle of an energy drink. If your bike frame cannot accommodate two bottles, you may want to consider a hydration pack. Drink at least 16oz. of water or a recovery drink (per manufacturer recommendations) after your ride; more if it is a hot day.
- For rides over 2 hours, drink at least 16oz. of plain water or a pre-ride energy drink before you ride. Carry and consume one 16-24oz. bottle of plain water, plus one extra 16-24oz. bottle of an energy drink for each hour on the bike. Plan your route so that you have options to stop for water along the way, and carry a few dollars with you in case you need to purchase bottled water, energy drinks, etc. Drink at least 16oz. of water after your ride, plus 16oz of a recovery drink (per manufacturer recommendations).
Helpful hydration tips
- Drink before you are thirsty – As Board says, if you are drinking to quench your thirst, “then you have already fallen behind, and it will be almost impossible to catch up.”
- Bring “pre and post water” – If you’re driving to the trailhead, don’t tap into the water you’ve brought for your ride on the way there. It’s important to ensure you’re properly and adequately hydrated before hitting the trail, but taking gulps while you sit in traffic is only going to take away from what you’re able to drink on the bike. You also want to ensure you have water handy for the ride home – when you’re parched and in recovery mode. After a long, hard ride you might drain your bottles or hydration pack and be left with nothing for the commute. Bring some water specifically for travel. Either a large bottle with enough for both sides of your ride, or two separate bottles. If you’re like me and you’re not too thrilled about warm water after a strenuous ride, consider an insulated bottle to keep your H2O chilly for your post-ride refreshment. Hydroflask’s 21 oz. standard mouth bottle is perfect for the ride home. This bottle keeps water cold, fits in the cup holder and its size holds more than the required amount of recovery fluid for most rides, per Performance Bicycle’s recommendations above. This is a very simple tip, but it can make a big difference in terms of your hydration.
- Don’t’ forget the salt – Board believes that the key to replacing fluids during your ride is to “find the right balance of liquid and salt.” Salt “aids in getting our muscles what they need during exercise and helps prevent cramping.” Board recommends drinking 4-8 ounces of salt every 10–20 minutes. James Wilson recommends adding one pinch of unrefined sea salt per liter of water. According to Wilson, “Adding a pinch of unrefined sea salt is supposed to help your body better absorb and utilize the water you drink.” This means less water loss through urination and more benefit for you from the water you drink. Added bonus: a touch of flavor and seasoning to your H2O.
- While it’s important to drink lots of water regardless of the temperature, it’s obviously even more important to drink plenty of water in hot and humid climates. Be sure to check the local weather as you plan your ride and bring extra water if the forecast calls for high temperatures.
- Try to keep up with sweat loss – Sports nutrition expert Monique Ryan, RD, author of Sports Nutrition for Endurance Athletes, says it is important to replace about 75% of sweat lost during a long ride. According to Ryan, determining your sweat rate is as easy as weighing yourself before and after a short ride as “An hour ride is a good indicator of what you’re losing through sweat alone.”
- Make sure you have to “go” – If you’re drinking frequently on the bike and staying properly hydrated, you should – as a general rule – “have the urge to ‘go’ at least once every hour.”
Mountain Bike Action asked a couple of top professional mountain bikers to share some of their tips for hydration on the trail. Here’s some of what they had to say:
- When racing or riding during the hot months, I like to make sure I use an electrolyte mix in bottles. I prefer the Clif Hydration Electrolyte Drink Mix Cranberry Razz. I don’t get a lot of calories from this drink, but I feel the electrolytes help me maintain hydration better than water alone.
- If it’s really hot, I will add some CrampFX to my bottles during a race. CrampFX is essentially a salt tablet (it’s a company based out of Norway), but even adding some normal salt to the bottles will help. I also have some CrampFX in the morning before a really warm race as well.
- On race day, I try to stop drinking 30 minutes before the start so my bladder has time to empty. The last thing you want is to have to go to the washroom once the gun goes off.
- It can be easy to forget to drink once you are at full throttle during a race. When pre-riding a course, make sure to think about which sections are good for taking a drink and take note.
- Be consistent. Start drinking early (I usually start 15 minutes in) and stay consistent. I try to shoot for at least a bottle an hour, maybe more if it’s very hot.
- For rides over 1.5 hours or high-intensity rides, I use a sports drink, like Clif Hydration Electrolyte Drink Mix. Some people prefer just water. If you are racing, make sure to test out anything new in training before your race.
Food on the ride
Ensuring adequate nutrition during a ride is critical to avoid the dreaded “bonk.” Also known as “hitting the wall,” bonking occurs when your blood sugar drops to low levels (hypoglycemia) – you simply “ru[n] out of fuel for your body and your brain.” Dr. Elizabeth Quinn says, the feeling of bonking is unmistakable and is usually characterized by severe weakness, fatigue, confusion, and disorientation. Sounds like something you’d like to avoid, right? Read on and we’ll tell you how.
In order to maintain adequate energy levels during your ride, aim to consume 200-300 calories per hour. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), cyclists should try to “have a few bites of food and a few sips of fluid every 15 to 20 minutes.”
Here are a few mid-ride “super snacks” and bonk preventatives AND recommends:
Bananas: Potassium and carbohydrates packed in a natural travel case. According to AND, bananas’ carbs may provide advantages to your muscles’ “ability to use the fuel efficiently.” More fuel to your muscles means more “pedal power” for you.
Trail Mix: According to AND, dried fruits and nuts are a “concentrated source of carbohydrates” and dried apricots, prunes and raisins “have the added benefit of potassium.” Heavy sweaters may want to opt for salted nuts and seeds.
Water and Fluids: For shorter rides of an hour or less, water alone is typically sufficient. For longer rides, plan to carry water plus a sports drink to help replace calories and electrolytes, especially in hot weather. While there are a variety of sports drinks and mixes on the market, AND also offers an easy recipe for a homemade sports drink. Combine black or green iced tea, a splash of juice, some sugar and a pinch of salt for a simple drink with an added antioxidant boost. AND advises, “Take sips of fluid often to maintain hydration and alternate between the two drinks if packing both.”
Energy Bars: They are certainly convenient, but often expensive. If you’re going to eat them, AND recommends one that has ingredients such as whole grains, dried fruits and nuts.
Following the paleo diet? (and we recommend you do – see our paleo article to learn more). For sustained energy the paleo way, Bicycling’s Allison Young recommends complex carbs such as grains, dairy, and beans, as well as the following do-it-yourself energy supplement in lieu of “packaged fuel.”
2 Tbsp raw organic honey
2 Tbsp raw almond butter, apple butter, or 1/2 banana
1 tsp lemon juice
For those who subscribe to the paleo diet will also bring small bags of staples in the paleo diet – such as wild salmon and cubed or chopped sweet potatoes – for a trailside snack.
You’ve probably heard the saying, “you get out what you put in.” This is certainly true of our bodies in relation to mid-ride hydration and food and mountain biking. By properly hydrating your body and consuming sufficient calories throughout a ride, you’ll ensure that you have what it takes to perform on the trail and enjoy healthy endurance.
Links To Other Related Posts:
Or you might also be interested in the Paleo Beginners Guide, just click on the image below.
So keep in touch and get out on the trails.
About The Author
Rod Bucton, mountain bike fanatic from Mid North Coast, New South Wales Australia…discover the shortcuts to mountain biking for beginners and while you’re at it follow Rod on Facebook or Instagram.
Like any sport, bicycling involves risk of injury and damage. By choosing to ride a bicycle, you assume the responsibility for that risk, so you need to know — and to practice — the rules of safe and responsible riding and of proper use and maintenance. Proper use and maintenance of your bicycle reduces risk of injury.