Cycling in the heat can be challenging, especially if you are not used to it. When cycling in the heat you have to be careful to remain hydrated, plus taking on enough water and salts. In the UK, we rarely get the opportunity to ride in really hot conditions, which is probably why we struggle a bit more than continentals who are more used to it. Even when it goes above 25 degrees is can feel hard work. But, if we go to Europe or US, it can be even more challenging with temperatures of 35 degrees plus.
The good news is that cycling is one of the better sports to do in the heat. At least you get a cooling effect from the wind – something you don’t get so much when running.
Heat in the Tour de France
On the BBC, there’s a good article by Geraint Thomas on riding in the Tour de France with temperatures nudging 35 degrees +
Thomas writes that:
“I had been drinking around three bottles of fluid every hour – 1.5 litres – to keep myself hydrated and to ride at that threshold. (BBC link)
For a six hour stages, that’s 18 bottles or 9 litres. That’s tough for whoever is on water bottle carrying duty that day.
Even with all that water, Thomas says his head felt as if it was going to explode. It’s one thing to ride in the heat, it’s another thing to ride at threshold in the heat. Thomas says he got used to the heat a bit, riding in the Tour down Under. But, even a professional with the best possible backup and experience, still finds it really tough; that’s an element of riding in the heat – it is always going to be a bit harder.
Tips for riding in the heat
The need for water can increase dramatically. Once the temperature goes above a certain level, you can need much more than usual. It’s not necessarily a linear progression The danger is that you just take the usual amount, plus a bit more. Thomas writes that he was getting three bottles an hour. Just to emphasise – that is really a lot. But, the amount you need is quite an individual thing. To put it bluntly some people sweat more than others.
Consider increasing your water carrying capacity. In winter, you can get away with one or two bottle cages, but if you need to be drinking 2 bottles an hour, it can become a real pain, having to keep stopping. For a pro, like Thomas it’s much easier when you have a team car and people to pass you water. For a lone, unsupported rider, it’s a bit more of a pain to keep stopping. If you’re going to be riding a lot in the heat, consider 1000ml bottles (I use this 1L SIS water bottle – good on down tube, but gets in way on the seat tube) or an additional rear mounted bottle cage, so you don’t have to stop so much.
Electrolytes. When you’re drinking extra quantities of water, you need to take water with electrolytes in. If you just take plain water, you can deplete your salt levels and this can create real problems. A litre of sweat can contain up to about 800 mg of sodium (depending on person) – that’s 50% of recommended intake of sodium (link). I like to take some small packets of electrolytes in back pocket, to put in bottles when I fill up.
Reduce concentration of energy drinks. When it’s really hot, your stomach will not appreciate highly concentrated energy drinks. As you will be drinking more you can afford to reduce the concentration of energy powder and you will still get enough carbohydrate.
Getting the right quantity of water and electrolytes is not so easy. It’s hard to give precise quantities because everyone will be different depending on their weight, effort levels, propensity to sweat e.t.c. One very rough rule of thumb is to check quantity / colour of urine. You will notice on very hot days, you need to work harder drinking extra water to keep urine normal colour.
It is also useful to weigh yourself before and after a ride, you can easily lose a couple of kilos during a ride. However, don’t feel you have to keep the same weight after the ride, it is inevitable your weight goes down a little after a ride (even when it’s freezing), but if it is more than normal, it is a sign of excess water loss.
One thing about riding in the heat is that it requires a certain discipline and focus to keep drinking and taking on energy. If you’re not careful, you can just suffer and not take on enough. Often it is only when you stop, that you realise how thirsty you are.
Just because it’s hot in the valley, doesn’t mean it is hot everywhere. If you’re climbing mountains or even big hills it can still be a lot cooler high up. A good rain jacket can help protect should the weather change.
With riding in the heat, there is an element of acclimatisation. If you go from a cold British winter to 35 degrees in Australia, it’s quite a shock to the system. The longer you spend riding in the heat, the better you will get. The body can change the way it sweats and it becomes more tolerable over time. Therefore, if possible give yourself time to adjust to the heat.
There is a psychological element to riding in the heat. I’ve heard many British people say quite strongly “I hate the heat” – “I’m useless in the heat”. I do think this makes it even more difficult. Certainly some people will find it harder in the heat, but try and avoid being too pessimistic. Even if you’ve had a bad experience riding in the heat, there is probably quite a lot you can do to make it better next time – acclimatisation, drinking more, and gaining more confidence to riding in the heat. Don’t write off you ability to ride in the heat. See it as a challenge – something to get used to, like you train to get faster, you need to train to get used to the heat.
It is possible to drink too much. It can cause a condition known as hyponatremia – when you take so much water, cells become depleted in sodium. The phenomena has been observed most in slow marathon runners, who took a long time, and drank too much at every water station. There is an element of common sense. You don’t have to down litres of water before starting – this will just make you want to stop.
Caffeine. There seems to be conflicting research, some studies suggest caffeine can act as a diuretic and increase chance of dehydration. Others negate this. But, I avoid anyway.
I was sent some samples of Elivar – Sports nutrition specially formulate for the over 35s. Firstly, I wasn’t entirely enamoured of being reminded that I was edging towards the ‘veteran’ category. The young and sprightly can take anything, but apparently us old fogies need special nutritional requirements.
The basic principle behind Elivar is that ‘older’ athletes do better with more slow release carbohydrates, and less ‘simple’ / high GI index food.
The main difference of Elivar brand of sports nutrition is that it contains a higher proportion of protein, and no fructose – but more complex carbohydrates.
The Elivar website states:
The plain fact is that your physiology (not to mention your work life balance) does change. It gets harder to maintain muscle mass, absorb and synthesize vitamins or maintain strong joints and bones. That’s why it can take longer to recover after a hard session or you pick up more coughs and colds.
One 65 gram serving provides
27 gram of carb
– 14g of which is sugar
27 gram of protein
I do like taking energy drinks pre race because it’s a way to stock up on energy without overloading the stomach. For pre-ride, you definitely want slow release carbs, and I would avoid too much fructose at this stage in the day. Often I take a recovery drink pre race as I assume that is a better pre-race drink. This seems to do a good job pre-ride
The only thing with prepare is that it does seem quite similar in protein carb ratio to the recovery drink. I’m not sure how it differs too much.
Recently, I’ve been buying quite a lot of these packs of energy gels with water bottles. Firstly, it’s convenient to have lots of sachets for travelling and carrying in back pocket to top up water bottles during long rides. It saves having to carry around 1.5kg tubs. Secondly, buying a pack with a free water bottle, is a good motivation to throw away some rather manky looking water bottles that have been sitting around my cupboard for God knows how many year. Generally, the packs are good value, and much better and more convenient than buying the odd gel and energy bar everytime you might need one. If you’re lucky, you might see some packs on special offers. It’s always worth checking with the manufacturer site, as they may give a free starter pack if you register with them. I know ZipVit were doing this for a while, but seem to have discontinued the practise at the moment.
These are some of the endurance packs that you can pick up in cycle shops or online.
SIS Endurance Pack
2 x SIS GO Isotonic Gels;
2 x SIS GO Energy Sachets;
2 x SIS GO Electrolyte Sachets;
2 x SIS REGO Rapid Recovery Sachets;
2 x SIS Go Energy Bars.
Free 800ml SIS bottle is also included
10 * energy sachets = £11.99 £1.19 per item. It could be more expensive to buy separately. I quite like this SIS pack and have bought a couple. There is a good mix of sachets and I find myself using all the different products. The water bottle is high quality and makes a good replacement for some old ones.
The recovery powder is based on soy protein
The energy powder is based on maltodextrin/fructose 2:1 combination.
Over the years, I’ve taken a huge variety of energy bars and food on rides. These are a quick review some of the bars I buy most often.
What to look for in an energy bar?
High level of carbohydrate / low fat.
Mostly complex carbohydrate, with some carbohydrate which sugars. Medium GI index.
High concentration of energy for size.
I tend to take a variety of energy bars. I’m not particularly fussy which brand. But, a bit of variety helps in various aspects – even if just making eating of the bike more palatable.
Specific Cycling energy bars vs non-Specific energy bars
For a specific energy bars developed for the cycling market, you will pay around £1 – £1.50. You can get a similar level of carbohydrate through much cheaper non-specific energy bars. For example Kellogg’s Nurti Grain contains around 35g of Carb, but only costs 40p. If you don’t want to pay £1.20 for 30 grams of carbohydrate, you don’t have to.
However, I still like to pay ‘through the nose’ for branded energy bars because:
Psychological habit. You just assume if it’s more expensive, it must be better. ( a common attribute of cycling shoppers)
The energy bars tend to be more concentrated, and relatively lower fat.
I would get bored of eating Kellogg’s Nutri Grain and the like all the time.
I always like to believe manufacturer’s claims that eating their energy products will make me go ‘15% faster’ – even if it is rather a dubious claim!
Proprietary energy bars often contain trace elements and electrolytes which may help in different aspects of nutrition and energy consumption. (even if I’m not entirely sure how)
It’s handy to buy a big box of 24 energy bars. You always have something in stock to take on long rides.
Some of the best Energy bars I buy
Powerbar 55 gram- Energize
Contains slow release carbs, = brown rice, oats and maltodextrin for slow release energy.
Contains 2:1 Glucose / Fructose, which is claimed can increase total energy uptake
Some electrolyte (sodium) + vits and minerals, such as magnesium.
1.9g fat per bar
38 gram of carbohydrate (sugars 23g) , per 55 gram bar. Quite a high % of carbs which is sugar (from fructose)
Review: Quite concentrated energy source. Needs a bit of chewing and you need to take some water with it. I do like the taste of the chocolate variety. Not too sweat. Good for long rides, and very thin for slipping in back pocket. One of most expensive though. I wouldn’t use in a race, because it does slow you down a little chewing through the bar.
Mixture of GI foods. usual maltodextrin, oats, plus fructose based energy
30 gram of carbohydrate per 45 gram bar 22g sugars)
Review: These are pretty enjoyable to eat. They are moist and tasty. This is important for long rides, where you often need something attractive to get you to eat. 30 gram of carb makes it easy to calculate – 2-3 an hour. I wouldn’t just rely on eating these on a very long ride, it becomes a bit too much fruit.
Eating sufficient calories for cycling should, in theory, not be too difficult, but in practise it is easy to get it wrong.
It is surprisingly easy to ‘forget’ to take on enough energy. But, at the other extreme you can try to take on too much in a short space of time – food the body can’t digest leaving you just a bloated stomach.
It is not just amateur cyclists who struggle to get the calorie intake correct. I’ve heard many coaches of pro-teams say one of the hardest things is to get Pro-cyclists to eat and drink in sufficient quantities. I’ve heard many times Director Sportives say of a pro-cyclist – he’ll be fine so long as I can get him to eat and drink. The problem is that when you’re racing, it can feel like an effort to eat and drink.
On a personal note, I’ve often messed up 100 mile time trials (4 hours) because I didn’t take the correct levels of energy / drink. This post is partly for my own benefit.
Top tip for optimal energy intake
The maximum rate of carbohydrate consumption per hour is 60-75 g.
This figure is very important as a rough guide to how much you should eat for long rides; you want to be aiming to keep a constant carbohydrate intake around this figure.
If you are taking more, e.g. 100 grams +, you will just get stomach problems because you can’t ingest it all, the food will be sloshing around your stomach, making you feel bloated / sick.
If you only taking less – e.g. 20 grams or less, you are under-fuelling and more likely to run out of energy and end up with the dreaded ‘bonk’.
One easy way is to split up food into 25 gram units – and take 3 an hour. Or 2*35 gram units
It does requires discipline to actually take what you need. When racing, you may not feel like drinking / eating, even though you need to. You can’t rely on the normal hunger / thirst indicators. Sometimes, you can just feel too exhausted to reach for a drink. In a Timetrial you can get stuck in the aerodynamic position and not want to move around to get food.
Twice in a 100 mile race, I didn’t stop to pick up a third bottle because in the racing mindset I didn’t want to lose 5 seconds picking up a bottle. But, I ended lost a few minutes because I took on too little energy.
Don’t do something in a race, you’ve never done in training. e.g. don’t suddenly drink litres of fructose / glucose energy drink if you’ve never done that before. Your stomach may not like it! You don’t want to find out in a big sportive / race.
Remember there’s a big difference between a steady four hour endurance / training ride and racing for four hours. The calorie consumption increases significantly the more effort you make. You might survive a steady training ride on little food, but if you race hard, the energy consumption will be significantly greater.
Easy to remember hourly units of 60-70g of energy
400 ml of energy drink mixed at 5% solution (35 grams) + one energy bar (35 grams )= 70 grams
800 ml of energy drink at 6% solution (70 grams)
3 * Energy gels (25 grams)
3* bananas (25 grams)
(you will need to check the carbohydrate levels in the energy drinks / bars that you use, and make sure you check the concentration – as this alters the energy levels)