Drink when you’re thirsty

Jobst Brandt was the first guy who challenged my belief that I should drink at least eight glasses of water every day.

brawndo electrolytes the thirst mutilator - it's got what plants crave!

I bumped into Brandt during one of his famously epic 100 mile rides across the Santa Cruz Mountains and noticed he doesn’t have a bottle cage on his famous yellow bike. He stopped at the Fosters Freeze in Boulder Creek, CA where I stupidly asked “You don’t bring water?” as he ordered a soft serve cone.

He pointed to his soft serve and answered “This is my water.” He then waved at the 40 ounces of water on my bike and gently scolded, “You carry too much” before launching into his discourse on the marketing of hydration and fools like me who believe it.

After that, I began to notice reports of endurance athletes who die from hyponatremia because they drink too much water. This water dilutes the electrolytes in your body, and you begin to suffer from nausea, headache, confusion, and muscle weakness. Many people misinterpret these as symptoms of dehydration, so they drink even more water, making the problem worse. Extreme hyponatremia can lead to seizure, coma and even death.

When I ran track and cross country in high school and college, I was told to drink before I was thirsty. The advice from sports medicine these days is to drink when you’re thirsty, because your body does a pretty good job of signalling when you need water.

And electrolytes?

The late Jobst Brandt didn’t convince me to abandon my water bottles, but I don’t carry the crazy amounts I used to. I’ve discovered I do fine carrying a single 20 oz bottle of water for any ride up to 50 miles with varying terrain in all but the very warmest weather.

For moderate rides, you really don’t even need electrolytes, but some research shows that a little sugar and salt in the water helps with absorption. In other words, a little bit of electrolyte drink mix makes the water get into your system a little better, with sometimes measurable increases and performance if that kind of thing matters to you.

I’ve tried many of the powder mixes on the market, including several from small and struggling startups with what they hope are superior taste and formulations. My favorite remains anything from Skratch Labs because it tastes so good, but, honestly, the classic lemon-lime Gatorade is my standby because it’s cheap, available, tastes fine to me, and contains the basics. I think Camelbak Elixir is pretty yummy, too. As with all things subjective like this, your mileage may vary.

I am not a physician and this is not medical advice. Scott Gavura, an avid distance runner and a Canadian pharmacist, discusses some of the science of hydration over at Science Based Medicine in a recent blog post. He mostly debunks the supposed superiority of coconut water over plain water, though acknowledges it tastes pretty good and is probably better than the typical carb-laden sport drinks many of us use. He concludes: “In most cases, you don’t need to over-think your hydration. Drink if you’re thirsty. Water is best in most circumstances.”

4 Comments

  • August 5, 2015 - 3:09 pm | Permalink

    Simple question from mountaineering: ‘are you peeing clear?’ If not, your performance and judgement suffers and you become a liability to your rope team. I ride alone, but anyone short of water I’d want at the back of my peloton, thanks.

    I don’t hold with electrolyte drinks* because most of us have too much salt and sugar in our systems anyway, but I do need to drink a lot to stay well, and have had heat-stroke/dehydration once and do not need another three-day headache and photo-sensitivity. Anyway, people should be in touch with their own body’s needs: weather depending, mine is a lot more water than you or he.

    *But I do carry some in my first-aid kit for back-country trips, mainly in case of extended diarrhea.

  • August 7, 2015 - 6:07 am | Permalink

    When it is very hot, besides thirst, considerations of how fast the water heats up and its cooling effect on the skin become important.

  • August 11, 2015 - 11:53 pm | Permalink

    It depends on where and what type of terrain as to how much water I plan to carry. A fifty mile ride on a hot August day through a desolate countryside I bring enough if I should get a flat or encounter severe winds which was very common when riding in New Mexico. In a climate that is very hot and humid I noticed need for more hydration as the humidity effected my performance as much as the heat. During the summer I have decided to use a small hydration pack for convenience.

  • August 27, 2015 - 4:14 pm | Permalink

    I used to work out in the sun a lot. I would always carry some Gatorade around, and offer it to people to have asip. If it tasted like Gatorade, you’re fine and don’t need to hydrate more. If it tasted like nothing, drink the whole cup, because you needed it. It is indeed amazing what happens when you listen to your body.

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