Tour de France
The annual pilgrimage through the roads of France for the world’s bests cyclists is unquestionably one of the most demanding sporting events in the world. More than three weeks of grueling racing through every imaginable weather, terrain and challenge places physiological and emotional stress beyond what most of us mortals can begin to imagine. Beyond being highly trained for the demands of the racing, the sport also requires massive thought and focus on several other supporting components of performance, including equipment, recovery, fueling, nutrition and hydration. None of these components will make a champion, but if ignored they can certainly destroy dreams and opportunities for a champion. Today, I will focus on hydration, with a focus on why it is important and how, if executed correctly, can facilitate optimal performance and recovery.
The importance of hydration in endurance events:
Let's first consider the role of proper hydration in endurance events. Most of us have some grasp on the fact that proper hydration is preferable over dehydration, but do you know what proper hydration will accomplish? Well, a few of the positives of proper hydration are:
- A delay of the onset of fatigue during training and competition
- The ability to maintain focus during hard exertions
- Improved recovery process to facilitate repeated performance
- The maintenance of the immune system and health status
If we can keep an athlete hydrated they can stay focused, delay fatigue, recover well and have the potential to maximize their fitness and performance readiness.
The Tour Puzzle:
In an event such as the Tour de France, which challenges athletes to compete at their peak day after day, we are interested in elevated daily performance and prevention of a negative physiological and nutritional status. The athletes must do all that is possible to support the physical riding with enough calories during and between the competition hours, minimizing dehydration during the riding, and restore hydration status each day. If they can achieve these areas they will limit any additional assaults on their immune system through accidental 'athletic starvation', or highly dehydrated states. Both of which are highly corrosive to the immune system and athletic performance.
You can almost think about the best performers being the riders who suffer and slow down the least relative to their competition, or another way to look at it is damage limitation. Hydration is a key part of this damage limitation strategy.
The sciency-bit. How does it work?
You will likely know that water is key to cellular function and life, but let's consider how it helps endurance performance. It is key to realize that you cannot remain fully hydrated on any single day of an event such as this. Every athlete will get dehydrated throughout the course of a day riding at the Tour.
The key is to get less dehydrated.
The reason for this focuses mainly around the volume of blood in our body. To simplify the role of blood in our body we should consider two primary roles of our blood in endurance exercise:
- Blood is the delivery method of oxygen and other nutrients to our muscle for energy production (and the removal of nasty waste products)
- Blood delivery to the skin dissipates the corrosive heat that is generated with work (exercise).
When riders begin the Tour, in their fully hydrated state, their blood volume is optimal, so there is 'plenty to go around' and the muscles receive plenty of oxygen and generated heat is easily dissipated. As the race continues the rider will become more and more dehydrated, and as the blood is made up of plenty of water, our blood volume begins to drop. As the blood volume drops, coupled with increasing heat production as the work rate continues, the competition for blood increases. In this battle the skin will always win as increasing heat can be life-threatening, but how fast you ride has little consequence to your brain and vital organs. This means more of your 'lowered blood volume' will get pushed to the skin, leaving less for the muscle consequently generating an early onset of fatigue. Not a good thing for elite athletes, hence it is easy to understand why hydration status should be preserved as much as possible.
But this isn't all! In addition to maintaining hydration status the athlete must also continue to fuel with calories, and hydration has an important role in this process also.
When you sit at your dining room table and have a meal your absorption of ingested calories in highly efficient, and unless you gorge yourself or eat too quickly, you shouldn't experience too much gastrointestinal distress. When you are exercising hard, or racing your bike through the mountains of France, the same cannot be said. Much of the blood normally used to facilitate absorption is being rushed to the muscles or skin, hence absorption is severely limited, yet the athletes still require calories to fuel the work. To achieve this, athletes need to 'micro-dose' caloric ingestion with small, yet frequent, feedings. To maximize absorption these calories need to be diluted down to around 4 to 6 % solution of calories relative to hydration. We get our athletes to think of their hydration as the transporter of calories, and the shuttle that will keep them not only hydrated, but well-fueled.
Of course, once the days' racing is over, they have to step up and do it again the next day. The game now shifts to maximizing recovery and restoring hydration status. This is absolutely key to success, and all riders will make a habit, or ritual of rehydration following the day of racing. It takes many hours to properly rehydrate following a day of racing, so frequently drinking fluids throughout the afternoon and evening is critical. If the rider does a good job of rehydrating they will maximize muscular recovery, restore status back to 'normal' (as close to it as possible) for the next day, and open up the opportunity for a good night sleep.
The key message is that, in events such as the Tour de France, the daily racing is already a massive stress. The key for the riders is to do all they can to minimize the negative effects of that stress, as well as prevent adding any additional suppression of their immune system and health through a lack of follow through on a completely controllable factor such as hydration.
You might not be racing in The Tour this July, but the same concept absolutely applies. Life is already stressful enough; don't add additional stress to your life by going through it in a dehydrated state! Find your performance and support your life through optimal hydration. Your body will thank you and reward you with your optimal daily performance potential.