Most people think of electrolytes as preventing cramps, but that’s an oversimplification of their role in the body (and of cramping). Electrolytes are salts and minerals used by the body to carry on normal functions. Sodium, in particular, is essential to life and tightly regulated by the body. Drinking too much plain water can dilute sodium in blood to dangerous levels (hyponatremia), and conversely, under hydrating concentrates sodium levels by reducing the water content in blood.
Electrolytes are lost through sweat. When electrolyte levels are out of whack, normal body function is compromised, including one’s ability to keep turning the pedals. The goal then of electrolyte nutrition is to maintain electrolyte balance through adequate hydration and by replacing sweat loss. The presence of sodium in water accelerates the absorption of both from the small intestine, so combining electrolytes with water is the most efficient way to replace both. The composition of sweat varies from person to person (and even day to day), but on average contains sodium at 900mg/L, potassium at 200mg/L, calcium at 15mg/L, and magnesium at 13mg/L, with additional trace elements. Keep these concentration guidelines in mind when evaluating the electrolyte content of drinks and fuels.
Cyclists tend to under hydrate, particularly on hot, dry, or windy days when sweat evaporates more quickly. Dehydration is dangerous, as is over hydrating with water alone, which can lead to hyponatremia and even death. Beyond serious consequences, adequate hydration is critical to processing fuel and maintaining electrolyte balance. Under hydrating limits the absorption rate of carbohydrates (energy) and electrolytes, so drinking enough water is the basis of good nutrition. How much fluid is enough? This varies from person to person, by temperature, and with exercise intensity, but 24 oz (one large water bottle) per hour is a good starting point, and more if it’s hot.
Finally, cyclists need fuel to avoid running out of energy within a few hours. The liver stores glycogen and meters out glucose to power muscles during exercise until stores run low and the body shuts off non-essential consumption (like pedaling). You’ve probably experienced this as bonking. Moderate and higher intensity workouts burn 500+ calories per hour, so you might be tempted to try to replace these calories. Another common mistake is to think in terms of distance (take a gel every 10 miles) instead of time. In general, you want to consume 200- 250 calories per hour.
Everyone’s digestive system is different, and there’s more to the nutrition story than space permits, but the fundamentals of nutrition during exercise are becoming clearer as exercise science advances: adequate hydration is key to maintaining electrolyte balance and absorbing fuels; replace the electrolytes
you’re sweating out; and choose a fuel you can consume at a regular rate (200- 250 calories per hour) throughout exercise that maximizes calorie absorption and minimizes demands on the digestive tract.
On race courses, Tailwind is typically provided at a 200 calories/24oz of water solution. What this means is that if you fill up a 24oz water bottle with Tailwind, you’ll get 200 calories in that bottle. In addition, you will also have the following amounts of electrolytes:
- 606mg sodium
- 176mg potassium
- 52mg calcium
- 28mg magnesium
If you don’t want that many calories in the bottle, just dilute the Tailwind by adding more water. If, for example, you want a 100 calorie bottle, just fill 1⁄2 water 1⁄2 Tailwind. Also, be aware that Tailwind does contain more sodium than your average sports drink as it’s designed to mimic what you sweat out (most drinks contain only about 15% of what you need necessitating the need to supplement with sodium/electrolyte pills).
If you want to start training with Tailwind, just visit one of the many stores that carry it: http://www.tailwindnutrition.com/shop/.