By Dr. Johnathan Edwards
Riding a bicycle 200 miles on gravel is not something to be taken lightly. If everything goes well, you might ride across the finish line unscathed. But, there’s better than a 40-percent chance you will not finish the race, and an even higher chance that you find yourself on the side of the road for one reason or another.
Dehydration at the 2019 edition of the DK 200 was a key element for many. Hydration, electrolytes and calories must be done in a well-coordinated fashion throughout the race. It’s hard to emphasize this one enough, because dehydration, bonking and delirium take on another level of ugly when you’re 100 miles from nowhere. Even if you’re riding within your limits, you’re constantly turning the pedals and burning energy. It normally takes two to four hours between aid stations, and with gravel riding, there’s not much coasting. The heat is unrelenting, it’s dusty and, oh yeah, those headwinds.
A DK RULE OF THUMB
There are no standard fluid recommendations for cyclists, because everyone has different sweat rates, speeds, body sizes and fitness. A good starting point is to drink 1 to 2 bottles an hour; some may need 2 to 4 bottles per hour. For rides lasting many hours, consume a well-salted sports drink to replace lost fluid, salt and carbs. Adding a highly dissolvable salt to your drink mix will help keep your plasma volume tanked up and help prevent dehydration. I often recommend Tri-Salts, which is a pharmaceutical-grade combination of sodium, calcium and magnesium bicarbonate salts. I used this with my Champion Systems team during the 2013 Tour of California where the riders faced 110-degree heat for five hours.
Chugging bottles of only water will simply cause the kidneys to flush it out, causing frequent bathroom breaks. You may even dilute the body’s sodium balance and increase your risk of developing hyponatremia (or water overload) and cramps. Even worse, drinking too much water beyond thirst can lead to something called EAH, or exercise induced hyponatremia. EAH can lead to swelling in the brain and even coma or death.
Assuming you are not drinking water only, an ice-cold drink of water is very refreshing, and sometimes this is what the body needs. Finally, remember that you derive some hydration through the food you eat as well, especially homemade foods that are fresh and not packaged or dehydrated.
AVOIDING GUT ROT
Gastrointestinal or GI stress is something everyone deals with in the DK. When it hits, your energy levels are going to be sapped, motivation drops and the stomach pains may be too much to deal with. Let’s start with some background. GI stress occurs for many reasons, but most common is when food and liquids are not exited from the stomach. Other reasons can be from lack of blood flow to the intestines for a prolonged period.
The stomach can handle only so much fluid. Pass this limit and the fluid just sloshes around in there. Yuck. Thus, it is recommended to consume about two to four bottles of fluid spread out evenly over the entire hour. When you drink, think of sipping on your water bottle as opposed to taking big gulps. Know the distance to your next water stop, and carry more than enough to get you to each one.
One question that often comes up in training for races like the DK is if you should restrict fluid intake in training to adapt to lower fluid requirements in arduous conditions. This idea culminates in certain European cultures and is generally not a good idea. The physical work you are doing on the bike is generating tons of internal heat. Restricting fluids hampers the sweating process. Remember that sweating and blood flow are the primary means to dissipate heat from the body. Basically, your core temperature is going to increase out of control, and it can take hours to come back to normal.
WHY DO MY LEGS STILL ACHE?
Ah, muscles cramps—first come the little pangs and twinges, followed by involuntary twitches, then 20 minutes later full-blown jerking muscle contractions as if you were in a sprint, but you are not. Your muscles are balled in tight knots as an eternity passes, the only thought being, “What is the least painful way to get out of this?”
Muscle cramps result in continuous, involuntary, painful and localized contraction of an entire muscle. Generally, the cramp can last from minutes to days, and palpating the muscle area of the cramp will present a knot.
The most common reason for exercise-induced cramps is dehydration and electrolyte imbalance, along with peripheral fatigue of the nerves. When you continuously try to push your muscles in the face of electrolyte and glycogen depletion, this affects the nerves and is probably what is causing the cramps.
During a race like the DK, you can become very dehydrated and glycogen depleted. Pedaling on only results in added muscle and nerve fatigue. It can take days for the cramps to subside, because the nerve and muscle cells must repair themselves. It is a painful process because the nerves are connected to the muscles, and they send signals to the brain that the muscles are in trouble.
FIXING MUSCLE SORENESS
The treatment for muscle soreness is prevention. Through proper training, hydration, nutrition and bike setup, the muscles will take care of themselves for the most part.
Topical remedies for muscle soreness exist, and the popular answer is magnesium. Sometimes, a simple magnesium spray will work. There are many, and a popular brand is Theraworx, which can be found in most pharmacies. Bicarbonate creams (AMP HP) are also popular nowadays and have shown promise in treating muscle soreness.
“The pros have the time to train for many hours at a time and at different intensity levels, thus their muscles and energy systems adapt to higher training intensities, allowing them to ride harder and longer.”
Magnesium is critical for muscle function. It is a nerve stabilizer, and when levels are low, the muscles become twitchy. As magnesium primarily resides inside of our cells, normal blood tests do not reveal a deficit. Magnesium is abundant in meats and dark green vegetables. A tea called Natural Calm is a magnesium supplement that is very well-absorbed and even may aid sleep. Taking Magnesium tablets many weeks before the race may help as well.
IN A PICKLE
Pickle juice has been touted for years as a cure for muscle cramps. Research articles have indeed confirmed that pickle juice stops cramping, but not because it delivers salt or water quickly to the body. The cramping stops because of a reflex that is stimulated in the back of your throat (oropharayngeal reflex) that inhibits the nerve signals and causes the cramps to stop. Essentially, the pickle juice tickles or hyper-stimulates the mid-throat area, overpowering the electric circuit causing the cramping.
Another alternative may be ume plum vinegar. The Feed Zone Portables book has a nice excerpt on this subject. An alternative to pickle juice may be the Right Stuff salt packets or Hot Shot drinks. During a cramping situation, one could consume these products in hopes of abating the cramps. Warning, the taste is very bitter.
THE PROS VERSUS THE JOES
Everyone will develop cramps at some point. So, why do the pros cramp less than the amateurs? It may seem obvious—they receive bottles from the car and massages, but there are many reasons.
Adaptation to training stress; the pros have the time to train for many hours at a time and at different intensity level, thus their muscles and energy systems adapt to higher training intensities, allowing them to ride harder and longer.
Genetically speaking, some people just do not cramp, whereas others cramp. And, recent studies indeed confirm that some people are born with genes that predispose the muscles to cramping.
Extreme conditions during Stage 2 of the 2013 Tour of California from Murrieta to Palm Springs saw temperatures reaching 115 degrees. I personally added a gram of Tri-Salts to 100 bottles for the team I was working with. With so many riders cramping near the finish and some even with seizures, I felt pretty good that all our riders made it to the finish.
Massages are one of those things that help muscle cramping, but we will likely never know the reason why. It probably helps prevent cramps by restoring the coordination between the muscles and nerves.
If you experience cramps, a shotgun approach usually works best
1. Reduce your intensity, keep your cadence consistent and maintain good form.
2. Stretch and massage the muscles, stand up and try to change your position. Putting the muscles on more stretch sometimes alleviates cramps. Also, shaking your legs while seated is popular and can help. Even try hitting your muscles with your hand.
3. If you feel twitches coming on, drink and eat as much as possible. Consume a bottle of fluids (0.5L) and a teaspoon of salt (3 grams) or equivalent salt tablets.
4. Pour water over your head, neck and muscles.
5. If you have salt tablets/packets, consume them promptly.
6. If you are not in a race situation, slow down and focus on getting yourself together and you should make it home. If your muscles seize to the point you cannot pedal the bike, then stop and ask someone to help you. You may need a ride home at this point. Tearing your muscles is not worth it.