Hydration – A One-stop Nutrition Guide to Choosing Your Beverages… Wisely


Proper hydration is one of the most important aspects of healthy physical activity. Drinking the right amount of fluids before, during and after every exercise is vital to providing your body the fluids it needs to perform properly. Determining your individualized hydration needs, on and off the bike, will help you enhance performance in training and competition while minimizing risks for dehydration, over-hydration, and heat illness and injury.

But it’s not just sport drinks! Let’s consider other sources of hydration, such as smoothies, juices, milk, and dairy alternatives. Don’t forget that soup and fruit are sources of hydration. And then there’s the question of alcohol…. Is it good or bad to have a beer around training and racing? Deciding what beverages to hydrate with, and whether or not they are “worth the calories” is dependent on your training level, how much nutrition you get through food alone, and whether you are in a weight loss, maintenance, or gain mode.

Sport drinks

Last year, we published a whole article on hydration for cycling (still available in the archives on cyclingwest.com). To re-cap, the protocol is: for short rides (less than 60 minutes) of low to moderate intensity, water is adequate. Sport drinks (6-8% carbohydrate) are needed during moderate intensity cycling lasting longer than 60 minutes. High intensity riding (greater than 45 minutes, especially in heat) and endurance training (greater than 90 minutes) definitely require sport drinks. Sports drinks may also be used post exercise, as they provide several of the key nutrients needed for recovery (i.e., fluid, carbohydrate and electrolytes). When you sweat during exercise, the loss of electrolytes can cause muscle cramping, especially in hot, humid weather. Cells in the body use electrolytes to maintain voltages across their cell membranes and to carry electrical impulses to other cells. In this case, these impulses are responsible for muscle contractions. Therefore, it is crucial to maintain fluid balance. Dehydration results when athletes fail to adequately replace fluid lost through sweating. Since dehydration that exceeds 2 percent body weight loss harms exercise performance, athletes are advised to begin exercise well hydrated, minimize dehydration during exercise and replace fluid losses after exercise.

Juices and Smoothies

This is a hot topic in nutrition right now. There are many opinions out there on whether or not to “drink your calories.” It’s true, the calories add up fast when we drink fruit juice. That’s because it’s concentrated. For example, it takes about 4 oranges to make a cup of juice. So taking the time to simply peel an orange and eat the fruit, you can still get the hydration, but you get the fiber, which helps with satiety, so it’s not just “empty calories.” However, athletes need sugar for fuel, so as long as it’s in moderation and you’re drinking water too, this is not a concern. Just be sure you always use 100% juice! Another idea is to make smoothies, because then you get the nutrition, hydration, and the fiber. Basically, a meal in a cup! Smoothies and juices are also a great way to incorporate veggies into your day. Try adding spinach, cucumber, beets, carrots, or any other vegetable that you can. I have plenty of recipes and tricky ways to use hydration and nutrition together, so contact me for more information.

Pickle Juice

The liquid substance used to give cucumbers their salty, sour taste. It is usually made of water, salt, calcium chloride and vinegar (acetic acid). The use of pickle juice as a defense against muscle cramps first attracted headlines when the Philadelphia Eagles credited pickle juice with their cramp-free win over the Dallas Cowboys in the 100+ degree Texas heat. Although there is an abundance of anecdotal evidence supporting the use of pickle juice as a method of preventing dehydration and muscle cramps, the is little scientific evidence supporting or refuting these ideas. A recent study compared pickle juice to the carbohydrate sports beverage Gatorade. The two beverage samples were analyzed in a food-composition laboratory to determine the amount of salt, potassium, calcium and magnesium in each product. Pickle juice was found to have considerably more salt than the carbohydrate beverage. They concluded that pickle juice can be used as a remedy for muscle cramps. However, the study warns of the danger of ingesting large amounts of salt and suggests that athletes should dilute the pickle juice with a sufficient quantity of a hypotonic or isotonic solution. Two ounces is the suggested serving size of pickle juice. Not sure if I’d pour pickle juice into a water bottle for a race, but maybe a yummy “dill-icious” addition to a post ride sandwich!

Coconut water

The thin, filmy liquid found inside a young green coconut, not the same as the coconut milk derived from the meat of mature coconuts, is coconut water. It is becoming increasingly available in grocery stores and is another hot topic in sport drink nutrition. Because it contains electrolytes and minerals, coconut water is often marketed as a sports drink. One cup of coconut water has 46 calories and is a good source of fiber, potassium, magnesium and vitamin C. It also contains 252 milligrams of sodium and 9 grams of carbohydrate per cup. Compare this to an average sports drink that provides 110 milligrams of sodium, 15 grams of carbohydrate and 50 calories per cup. So, if you’re looking for a drink with some flavor but want to save on calories, coconut water can be a better choice than fruit juice. Well, the plain kind at least. Remember, once you add sugar, the calories start mounting. Try filling a bottle half water and half coconut water, a little lemon, honey, and salt. Your own hydration mix, yum!

Milk and/or Dairy Alternatives

Another hot topic in sport nutrition is dairy. Milk is definitely a good source of hydration, providing many essential nutrients that we need for sport performance. Whey protein is commonly used in recovery products. As referenced in an article published last year, dairy can be used as an appropriate food/beverage, providing carbohydrate and protein in approximately a 3:1 ratio, as well as essential electrolytes sodium and calcium. 16 fluid ounces of low-fat chocolate milk provides 52 grams of carbohydrate and 16 grams of protein. They important thing to remember when choosing dairy products is to keep then low fat or skim, especially for sport because it takes a long time to digest milk fat (and it’s high in cholesterol, and nobody needs that!). Another thing that dairy can do is increase mucous production, which may affect workouts. So, if you don’t tolerate dairy, are lactose intolerant, or simply choose to avoid dairy products, note that milk alternatives (almond, rice, soy, hemp, etc.) are fortified with calcium, vitamin D, phosphorous, and magnesium, so are great substitutes to get the nutrients for bone health as well as appropriate carbohydrate, fat, and protein for recovery drinks.


For many in the cycling community, nothing tastes better than a cold beer after a hard race or a long, hot ride. But how does alcohol affect our bodies as athletes? As far as energy is concerned, each gram of alcohol (ethanol) provides 7 calories (compared to 9 for fat and 4 each for carbohydrate and protein). Other nutrients may be present, depending on the type of beverage. Don’t get too excited, though, as there is not a lot of nutrition in there. For example, orange juice supplies four times the potassium plus almost three times the carbohydrates, and it would take 11 beers, to obtain the B-vitamins you would get from a sport drink. So, lets look at research on perfomance while alcohol is present in the bloodstream. Low amounts of alcohol (0.02-0.05g/dL) can slow reaction time and decrease eye-hand coordination. A moderate (0.06-0.10 g/dL) can result in faster fatigue during high-intensity exercise. Because of its diuretic property, it can also result in dehydration, being especially detrimental in both performance and health during prolonged exercise in hot environments. According to current research, the effect during a hangover shows declines in total work output during high- intensity cycling. Alcohol can result in nutritional deficiencies from alterations in nutrient intake, digestion, absorption, metabolism, physiological effects, turnover, and excretion of nutrients. Now, this is just to point out the possible affects of drinking around training and race times. Enjoy your beer, wine, or spirit of choice, especially if you’ve earned it after a hard ride or a podium toast. Just keep these tips in mind…

  • Pre-event: Avoid alcohol beyond low-amount social drinking for 48 hours.
  • Post-race: Rehydrate first and consume food to delay alcohol absorption speed.

How do I know if I’m properly hydrated?

The color of the first morning’s urine void after awakening is an overall indicator of hydration status. Straw or lemonade colored urine is a sign of appropriate hydration. Dark colored urine, the color of apple juice, indicates dehydration. Dark urine is also often produced soon after consuming vitamin supplements.

So what is the take home message?

Drink whatever beverages are appropriate for you and your nutrition status! This is based on your body, the amount of exercise you do, the environment you train in, if you’re a salty sweater or not, the duration of your workouts, and and whether you are eating your calories or not, to name a few. The most important thing to remember after every ride or race is to maintain adequate hydration throughout the day, so you are ready to ride, can replenish losses, rebuild tissues, hydrate and prepare for the next ride. Keeping quality gas in your tank can only help your engine run its best and achieve optimal performances on and off the bike. Cheers!

Breanne Nalder, MS, RDN has a Master’s degree in nutrition with an emphasis in sports dietetics at the University of Utah. She is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, certified ACE (American Council on Exercise) fitness instructor, and races for DNA Cycling p/b K4 Racing as a category 1 road cyclist. For personal nutrition coaching, you can reach Breanne at 801-550-0434 or [email protected].

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