Stu Bowers races for SCOTT Racing when he's not editing Cyclist magazine. In 2016 he was National Champion in the 40-44 age category and 3rd Vet overall. Last year he came 3rd in Rounds 1 and 2 of the HSBC National MTB Series. In his "distant" past he rode at an elite level for about 12 years, representing Team GB at World Cup and World Championship level in both MTB and Cyclocross.

Here's Stu's take on how to hydrate/fuel up effectively for MTB racing...

Staying hydrated/fuelled for XC races

For me, getting hydration right has always been about what I do before the event, more than during. I’ve never been the best at remembering to drink as much as I probably should during races, so I know I need to go in to the event well hydrated, particularly for hotter events.

Historically I used to create some of my own concoctions for optimal hydration, by using no added sugar cordials and sodium chloride powder bought from a pharmacy etc. This way I could alter the sodium content and flavours to taste, and to match the event conditions. If it was going to be boiling, I used to add more sodium etc.

More recently though, all the hard work is done for me by using Precision Fuel & Hydration's hydration tabs.

I preload the evening before the event with my 1,500mg/l strength tablets so I go to bed well hydrated. Then I repeat the process again at breakfast, beginning the day with plenty of water and another 1,500mg tab.

This is crucial as it’s perfectly possible to have problems with dehydration even in lower temperatures, especially in mountain biking where you're rarely off the gas! It’s a full on sport, and with the shorter Vets races I'm doing now (around 1.5 hours) pacing is less important - it’s flat out all the way!

During the race I'd typically only use a PH electrolyte drink or water, only using an energy drink if I really feel like I need the carbs. Every lap we pass through a feed zone (usually very close to the start of the lap) and it’s possible to take a fresh bottle each time.

But I tend not to do that, I'll usually top up maybe every second time through. In a typical 6 lap race you can almost guarantee your bottle won’t have moved out of the cage in the first lap (too frantic), so maybe take a fresh one at the start of lap 3, then start of lap 5 and maybe some Coke on lap 6.

Tactically, carrying a constantly full bottle of water is daft in short XC races! The lap time is usually in the region of 20 minutes, so having half a bottle of fluid or less is fine and this saves weight. If it’s a particularly hilly race, even my fresh bottles in the feed may only be half full, again to save carrying around loads of fluid you might not ever need or get around to drinking. 

In the latter part of a race I always have a bottle of flat Coca Cola on hand in the feed zone. I don’t take it 100% of the time, but again, that sugar kick is a nice thing to look forward to if I’m flagging in the latter stages of a race. Gels can also be handy in the extreme, although its rare I want one in a 1.5 hr race, assuming that I have eaten a good breakfast and topped up on carbs the night before.

If I’m going to take a gel it would usually be just after half way as it will need time to kick in and be of use to me. There's no point taking a gel with half a lap to go!

I would say, as a rule, I perform well in hot conditions. I think this has a lot to do with my awareness of being poor at drinking during the events and so preloading accordingly.

The Southern XC Championships in 2016 is a good example of this. It was a really hot day - one of those rare 27-28 degree weekends in the UK. I won the race and my hydration strategy seemed to have played a big part. I just seemed to stay on it and much fresher than my rivals for longer. I had prepared well with a strong electrolyte drink (PH 1500), and also taken steps such as dunking my jersey in a bucket of cold water prior to the start to try and help with cooling.

To be fair though I have got it wrong on a few occasions too! But you do always learn something from those days!

The worst incident I can recall was leading the Southern Championships as an Elite -quite a few years ago now. It would have been my first Regional Champs win as an Elite and I felt great on the day. I had an almost unassailable lead, were it not for one was a boiling hot day and I just got too excited and swept away in the moment and I forgot to drink.

I had some of the worst cramps I’ve ever experienced! I literally fell off the bike on a climb with my quads and calves all cramping simultaneously! I was lying in a bush trying to stretch it out when the second placed rider eventually came past, saying “I don’t want to beat you like this Stu…” - with a laugh. I could do nothing about it. I think I slipped all the way back to about 7th or 8th. It was a disaster but I definitely learned something from it on reflection...

Staying hydrated/fuelled for marathon MTB races

For marathon races, I have a different approach, both a hydration and energy point of view. In marathons the rider has to be much more self-sufficient.

There tend to be some feed stations, but they're spaced quite far apart, so it’s important to always have sufficient food in your pockets and fluids on your bike to keep you topped up.

These races can typically last 3-4 hours depending on the course and conditions, so eating early on is important if you want to avoid blowing up later. I tend to follow an “on the hour, every hour” policy, whether I feel like I need it or not when it comes to energy intake at least.

In these longer races, I might also substitute “real food” (where possible) for my energy bars. Not always, as I think the energy products now are so much better - more palatable and nutrient dense - than the old days, but equally those old habits tend to be heard to break! I used to use a soft white bap, with a chunk of mature cheddar, a slathering of jam and also Philadelphia to keep it all nice and squidgy! Sounds gross, but actually there’s a lot of good stuff in there, and it’s sweet and palatable and with the cream cheese it all slips down fairly easy...

Using full 750ml bottles is unavoidable on the marathon events, even if they weigh quite a bit when full. You need to always have as much fluid as you can carry, and if it’s a hot day, this probably still won’t suffice, so I'll stop and completely refill my bottles at feed stations too.

In the marathon races, if it’s hot particularly I sometimes wrap extra electrolyte tabs in cling film and have one or two in my pocket, so if I only manage to get water at a feed zone I can drop one in and to get in some of the electrolytes I've lost in my sweat.

If I’m really nervous about blowing up on a super long event, and I’m not sure what’s on offer at the feeds, then I'll even go to the length of having a few packets of my preferred energy powder stashed in my pocket to mix my own drinks on the fly.

Stu Bowers is a former MTB and cyclocross rider, as well as GB mechanic and journalist.