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RAGBRAI Training: Proper Hydration

  • 24 May, 2012

by Coach David Ertl

The corn in Iowa is coming up and that means one thing – summer is coming and along with it, hot weather.  Like the corn, your body needs water to function properly.  This article will touch on some key points regarding proper hydration, including a few words about adult beverages.

Your body is your engine.  Treat it well and it will treat you well and give you a rewarding RAGBRAI experience.  Neglect it and it will treat you the same.  Just as you wouldn’t run your car without engine oil, you need to make sure you body is filled up on water to get the best performance out of your own personal engine.  You are losing moisture at all times, even when you sleep.  Your body gives off moisture from your skin and through your breathing.  But your water loss is greatly accentuated during cycling when you may be visibly dripping with sweat and breathing heavily.  In cold weather, when you can ‘see your breath’ what you are seeing is the moisture coming out with each breath.   Cycling in the warm weather increases your sweating rate.  Being dehydrated on a ride can make you feel fatigued and low on energy, while what you actually need are fluids, not food.  So be sure to rehydrate while cycling as well as before and after.  

You should attempt to stay hydrated when you are not riding.  It’s easier than you think to get dehydrated just working in an office.  Make a point to drink regularly throughout the day.  If you are going for a long ride on a hot day, be sure to drink extra fluids prior to the start of the ride. You should need to visit a restroom before the start of your ride if you are adequately topped off.   After a ride, be sure to start rehydrating immediately to help your body recover from the stress of the ride.  An interesting experiment is to weigh yourself before and after a ride on a hot day to see how much you actually lose.  It’s possible to lose several pounds of water on a very hot day. 

The best fluid to drink is water, but any fluid you consume, including that in your food, counts.  There is a common belief that consuming drinks containing caffeine will dehydrate you.  However, recently there is evidence that caffeinated beverages do add to your hydration status.  But if you are consciously trying to hydrate, it’s best to minimize caffeine.  A good rule of thumb is that if your urine is light colored or clear, you are adequately hydrated. The more yellow, the more you are dehydrated.

So what and how much should you drink during a ride?  If you are doing short rides (90 minutes or less), just drinking water is good enough.  On rides longer than 90 minutes, you ought to consider using a sports drink, like Gatorade.  There are many of these on the market that you can buy as powders and add to the water in your bottles.  These typically contain a source of carbohydrate (glucose, sucrose, fructose, maltodextrin), electrolytes or salts (sodium, potassium) and some may contain proteins, amino acids, vitamins or other ingredients.  The most important component are the electrolytes because they need to be replaced on long rides because you lose them through your sweat.  Have you ever noticed white crystals on your shorts or helmet straps after a long ride on a hot day?  That’s salt you’ve lost through your sweat. You can now buy electrolyte tablets that you can drop into a full water bottle and it will dissolve (some fizz) and give you an instant electrolyte drink.   It’s also important to replenish some carbohydrate, but if you are eating during a ride, as you will invariably will during RAGBRAI (that’s half the fun!), then having carbs in your water bottle is less important.  It’s much less critical to get protein and vitamins in your water bottle.  You can get those from food before and after your ride. 

That answer what to drink, but how much should you drink?  Unfortunately this is less simple to answer as it is a very individual issue.  Some people sweat a lot more than others.  You know who they are – some people get you wet riding just riding behind them.  Others hardly ever break a sweat.  You probably have a good idea whether you finish a ride dripping wet or hardly damp.   About the best rule of thumb I can give you is to drink often while riding.  On a hot day, you should be drinking two large water bottles per hour.   It is often said that if you wait until you are thirsty to drink, it is too late – you are probably already somewhat dehydrated.  Drink before you are dry.

So what about drinking adult beverages?   On RAGBRAI you may find a place or two along the way where you can find yourself a beer.  Having a beer or two as part of your fluid intake is perfectly fine.  In addition, beer has some carbohydrates which are important for energy.  More than a couple of beers and that leads to other issues which go beyond this article on hydration.  Also, consuming too much while riding is no different than having too many and driving a car.  But if you enjoy your beer and drink it responsibly, it isn’t necessarily a bad thing and can help with your hydration.

So as you are doing your riding in preparation for RAGBRAI, be sure you have two water bottle cages on your bike and get in the habit of drinking frequently.

Hydrate and Ride!

Coach David Ertl

David Ertl is a USA Cycling Level 1 (Elite) Coach and Personal Trainer. He coaches the Des Moines Cycle Club Race Team, the Iowa JDRF Ride To Cure Diabetes Team, the Above & Beyond Cancer RAAM Team, and he coaches individual cyclists.  He also provides cycling training plans and ebooks at his website: http://www.CyclesportCoaching.com . He can be contacted at coach@cyclesportcoaching.com



  1. Debbie

    I know that my husband, sons & daughter in law drink lots of water on Ragbrai each year. I usually have to do some searching to find someone who can get them Kangen Water…their preferred choice of hydration on this road trip!

  2. william

    Great info

  3. mootsman

    On hot days it seems my system can’t absorb enough water to replace what I’m loosing. If I drink too much it just sloshes around in my stomach until it can get absorbed into my system.

    I think what it mixes with in my stomach might inhibit absorption also. Is there any food to avoid that once mixed with water in your stomach would hurt the water absorption rate?

  4. mootsman


    I could use a post on how to deal with the heat on RAGBRAI. I tend to generate more heat while riding it seems internally them most other riders I know. I’m actually fairly lean which I think would help. I have some heat mitigation strategies like starting early in the day to avoid some of it. I’d like to hear your favorite ways to deal with the heat.


  5. Coach David Ertl

    Great comments and questions. If you have sloshing around in your stomach you may be drinking too much. If drinking a lot, you need to make sure some of it is a sports drink as drinking too much plain water can flush electrolytes from your system. Eating solid food can slow absorption of fluid from your stomach so eat small amounts at a time when it is hot and you are drinking a lot. Stick with easily digestible foods such as carbs when riding. Avoid heavy foods in fat and too much protein as those take longer to digest and can sit in your stomach for a long time.

    I will address heat tolerance in my next blog.

  6. Eman

    When it comes to the hot Summer sun on RAGBRAI, remember, it’s not the heat, it’s the stupidity. Stay hydrated and watch the alcohol consumption on those really hot nasty days like we had every day last year.

  7. anthony

    @eman it actually is the heat which effects very many riders. Big difference between riding when its 65 degrees and 95. Your body releases a considerably amount of fluids based on the atmosphere you’re in. And every body is different. Some people naturally retain water more than others. Basically I’m commenting on how its not “stupidity”, rather its a complicated subject.

  8. Bill (mootsman)

    Thanks David, You mentioned one of the specific problems I had even though I didn’t mention it, the sloshing in the stomach. I had noticed it depends on the food I mix the water with. Oranges are good, bananas seem to slow the absorption. When something mixes in that slows tha absorption my stomach can cramp also. Also I was sticking to water instead of getting some energy drinks. Looking forward to your post on dealing with heat.

    Thanks, Bill
    (Eman, I don’t drink alcohol on RAGBRAI, even at night)

  9. Wayne

    Telling folks to stay hydrated is great.

    May I suggest that the pass-thru towns make sure that watering sites are obvious and well-marked? All-too-often we get to a town and can’t find the water. (How hard can it be?)

    I understand that they want to make money from sports drinks and beer, but water’s nice, too.

  10. Von Ketelsen

    I’d like to find out more about the best foods to eat on RAGBRAI, especially in relation to the issue you’ve been discussing, about saying hydrated, and avoiding the feeling of sloshing in the stomach.

  11. mootsman

    Von Ketelsen,

    David pointed some of them out and I’d have to agree especially with the heavy protein items. On days that I’m not going through a ton of water its fine. On those hot & humid days any meat with lots of water and I’ll get the sloshing. The meat slows the absorption water rate in my stomach down a bunch. Meat for lunch is not a problem when I am not drinking water heavily on cooler days.


  12. mootsman

    Von Ketelsen

    Should have included any milk based food (yes, including ice cream) hurts water absorption especially for the lactose intolerant.

  13. cberky

    Has there been any studies on sports drinks and heart conditions? Doctors we hae talked to have been contradictory in their answers – “yes, sports drinks are ok” or no “stay away from sports drinks”. We’ve been told gatorade is ok but not to touch others like Powerade. Coach, have you read any studies or have any advice?

    Thank you!

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