A new approach to hydration

The motto for Phase 2 of the RAAM Journey is “No stone unturned” and with this in mind it was time to tackle one of the biggest challenges I will face during both RAW and RAAM; the heat of the desert through California and Arizona and the need to stay hydrated. Cycling in temperatures well in excess of 40′ celsius for hours on end will put a huge strain on the body’s cooling systems. Many of the DNFs for RAW and RAAM happen in these early stages as people succumb to heat stroke, severe dehydration and the bigger threat of hyponatraemia which occurs when you don’t consume enough salt and other electrolytes causing water to pool in tissues which can be at best uncomfortable and at worst fatal as your brain swells.

For many years I have trained with a straight electrolyte drink (Nuun) rather than sports drinks as I find energy drinks too sweet and they don’t sit well with my stomach. This strategy has generally served me well but it’s never been very scientific. I’ve worked at whatever dilution I’ve felt right for a particular ride or temperature and have largely drunk to thirst, albeit focusing on the magic number of 500ml/ hour of exercise. For RAW and RAAM I need to have a much better strategy; failure to hydrate properly will not only end my race but also jeopardise my health.

With this in mind, I sought out the services of Precision Hydration. They offer a sweat testing service which analyses your sweat and allows them to suggest tailor a hydration strategy to meet your specific requirements. What you get from a sweat test is a highly accurate reading of the level of sodium (the key electrolyte lost in sweat) that you are losing during exercise. This is relevant as sweat sodium loss is very stable in an individual (it is genetically determined and changes little throughout your lifetime) BUT it is highly variable across the population. An eightfold variation has been recorded in the scientific literature. The test is very easy and mine took place in a Starbucks with Jonny Tye who as well as working for Precision Hydration is also double World Silver Medallist in the Marathon K1 and K2 disciplines. Small sensors are placed on the skin and a chemical called pilocarpine is applied. In the body, pilocarpine is responsible for activating the sweat glands and this means that your skin starts to sweat under the sensor. This sweat is collected and analysed by a small machine.

Once we knew the sodium concentration of my sweat, Jonny took me through the different H2ProHydrate products. They have 4 different strength of electrolyte tablets and also Sweat Salt capsules. Each of these products has a different part to play at different times and in different conditions. Firstly, I’ve a very concentrated solution which is for pre-hydration. This is to be used the night before and on the morning of big sessions or those such as high intensity turbo sessions where I will lose a lot of sweat. I’ve then got a more moderate solution to have during exercise, alongside water and a less concentrated one for recovery and to ensure that I maintain my hydration day-to-day. The Sweat Salt capsules are to work alongside, in particular if I’m struggling to get my electrolyte drinks down to ensure that I am keeping my sodium levels up. This will be particularly important if I start to experience gastrointestinal issues in the desert.

As with any strategy, it needs testing in training. I’ve been using the products for 2 weeks now and so far so good. I’m becoming more attuned to my hydration levels and the concept of letting my body tell me what it needs. The very concentrated 1500 solution is very palatable and goes down well when I’m not working, just as it needs to. The same is true for the weakest solution which I take at work sometimes to ensure I’m ready for an evening session or if I start to feel dry and water just isn’t cutting it. When I’m getting sweaty on the turbo, the 1000 is easy to drink but I find I don’t want it if I’m just out on a Level 1 ride – I’d rather drink mostly water. This makes sense as in the cool wintry conditions, at Level 1 I’m losing very little sweat. Listening to my body will be crucial during the race and becoming attuned to it is crucial. To ensure that I am hydrating properly we will also be monitoring my weight (in particular to ensure I’m not starting to retain large amounts of fluid) and also my urine concentration – not an attractive thought but a vital marker for hydration.

The first big test for my new products and strategy will be at the end of February as I head to Lanzarote for some warm weather training. I’m also hoping to be able to put it to the test in a heat chamber at the Porsche Human Performance Centre at Silverstone. This will allow me to put experience the sort of sweat levels I’ll be at in the desert and see how well I’m able to hydrate and perform.

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