Hydration is going to be one of the most important factors behind success at the Road World Champs in Doha. Luckily, it’s something riders can get ahead of before they arrive in Qatar, simply by gaining a better understanding of the issues they're likely to face and by having a plan for how they'll manage them. The same applies to you any time you're heading out to ride in warmer climes.
Why is hydration so important?
It's important to understand why you need to be thinking about hydration in the first place. It's essentially because your blood has multiple roles to play when you’re exercising hard…
1. It has to be directed to active muscles to supply them with oxygen and energy; and to remove toxic byproducts that would otherwise accumulate.
2. More of it than usual has to be sent to the skin to help dissipate heat and keep your core body temperature in check.
3. You need to sweat to increase the effectiveness of this heat transfer from your skin to the environment, and sweat is drawn directly from your blood plasma.
Dehydration increases the stress your body is under during these processes and so hampers performance. That’s why maintaining body fluid and electrolyte levels during exercise is critical. This is especially true in hot desert conditions, where heat dissipation is more difficult and fluid loss dramatically increases.
How worried should I be about being dehydrated during the Road World Championships in Doha?
Whilst hydration is clearly important for maintaining performance, there are a few things to bear in mind...
1. Getting somewhat dehydrated is almost inevitable for most people on the move under the midday desert sun. Your sweat rate can be as high as 2-3 litres per hour, whereas your maximal fluid absorption rate is likely to be only 800ml-1 litre per hour. You don’t need a maths degree to realise you’re likely to be fighting a losing battle when it comes to fluid loss.
2. A certain degree of acute dehydration during a race is not necessarily as bad as you might think. Whilst some widely reported studies in the past suggested that losing as little as 2% bodyweight via dehydration can hamper performance significantly, more recent analysis of athletes in competition settings has shown that many can continue to perform well at 4-6% dehydration, with some elite athletes (such as marathoner Haile Gebresallassie) finishing races in world class times whilst nearly 10% dehydrated!
This is not to say that dehydration won’t derail your race if you don’t pay attention to the risk, it absolutely has the potential to do so. Just that, when dehydration occurs acutely (and at relatively moderate levels) during exercise it might not be quite as detrimental to performance as was once thought.
So, should I just drink as much as possible during the week?
Forcing down large amounts of fluid even if you really don’t feel like it is not going to help. So, keep in mind that, just because there will be a lot of water on offer around the event, this doesn’t mean you have to drink absolutely all of it.
So, how much is enough? It’s reassuring to remember that you have a pretty powerful, innate ally in the fight against dehydration; your thirst instinct. If you pay attention to your body’s own signals and respond to the early signs of thirst you’re unlikely to get horribly dehydrated in a hurry. Yes, you’ll need to be aware of the need to drink more than you normally would if you've largely been training in cooler conditions, but that doesn’t mean you should stop listening to your body altogether.
The reason to avoid mindless drinking is that excessive fluid consumption can have some pretty nasty effects on your performance and health. You may well have heard of ‘hyponatremia’ as the condition has got in the last few years. The word literally means “low (‘hypo’) blood sodium (‘natremia’)” and most often results from consumption of fluids to an extent that you actually dilute the concentration of sodium in your blood stream to dangerously low levels. Sodium is an electrolyte critical for a variety of functions in the body, including maintenance of:
- Cell membrane potentials
- Nerve impulses
- Muscle contractions
- Fluid balance
If you drink far more than you need (without replacing sodium adequately through the foods you eat, or the fluids you take in) it can have very serious side effects. In an effort to maintain blood sodium levels in the face of water overload, the body shifts fluid from the blood stream into its own cells, causing them to swell up.
At first this might just result in some slightly swollen fingers, ankles and a general feeling of malaise and lethargy. But, if allowed to progress, can also result in swelling of the brain, headaches, coma and even death in extreme cases. Taking in adequate sodium along with the fluids you consume is helpful in maintaining levels in your blood stream.
Where do electrolytes fit in to the equation?
- Electrolytes are a big part of the hydration equation simply because you lose a lot of them in your sweat.
- The main electrolyte you lose in your sweat is sodium. It accounts for around 90% of the ions lost because it’s prevalent in your blood plasma, the pool from which sweat is drawn.
- It is true that you do also lose some calcium, magnesium and potassium, but in relatively trivial amounts, so sodium replacement should be your main focus when it comes to electrolyte replenishment.
- Sodium replacement helps you maintain blood volume, which in turn helps with management of your core temperature and delivery of blood to working muscles and the skin.
- Because you lose a relatively large amount of sodium in your sweat, when you’re going at it hard for several hours at a time total sodium loss can be really high. Therefore a reasonable level of supplementation is usually required alongside the fluids you consume in order to keep the body balanced.
- The interesting thing about sodium loss in sweat is that it varies dramatically from person to person, with some people losing as little as 0.2g per litre of sweat and others losing near 2.0g per litre! This means that different athletes need to take in very different amounts of sodium when sweat output is high. This variance in sweat sodium loss is largely down to genetics. Whatever the cause, it’s clear that a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to electrolyte supplementation doesn’t work.
What would a typical hydration strategy look like for the Road World Championships?
Our online Sweat Test give you personalised recommendations based on how you sweat, but here are some guideline recommendations based on our experience of helping athletes stay hydrated in hot climates...
The night before the race:
Drink a 500ml bottle of water containing a stronger electrolyte drink (1500mg/l+) like Precision Hydration 1500.
Take this instead of plain water you’d normally have had the evening before the stage, not in addition to it.
There is no need to drink it all in one go, just sip it over 2-3 hours.
The additional sodium in stronger electrolyte drinks like PH1500 helps your body to hold onto more of the fluid you consume meaning you pee less of it out and maximise your blood volume and hydration status for the next day.
The morning of the race:
Drink another 500ml bottle of water containing 1 serving of a strong electrolyte drink like Precision Hydration 1500.
Again, take this instead of plain water you’d normally have had before the start, not in addition to it.
Aim to finish drinking it between 45 and 60 minutes before you are due to begin.
As with taking it the night before, the additional sodium helps your body to hold onto more of the fluid you consume. It does this without lowering your blood sodium levels as can be the case if you just drink lots of plain water.
This means you will pee less and have the capacity to sweat out more without sodium and fluid stores becoming depleted so quickly. Finishing drinking it in good time before you start allows your body to absorb what it can, and for you to pee out any excess before the off.
During the race:
- Have 2 bottles on your bike. One with just plain water and another with a medium to strong electrolyte solution. Most of our athletes would drink Precision Hydration 1000 during a race in the conditions found in Doha.
- Having a bottle of plain water with you allows you to maintain a fluid/electrolyte balance by listening to what your body is telling you it needs. It also allows you to take in extra sodium fast if needed by chasing down an electrolyte capsule like a SweatSalt capsule.
Best of luck to all the riders out in Doha!