‘I have water. I’m good.’ I hear this comment often, whether on the skin track, a bike ride, or a long trail run. It makes sense too; as skiers, we’ve been on the receiving end of high-sugar caffeinated drink marketing for years, so the notion of drinking just water sounds much more appealing. Let’s be honest—on some ski days we go from coffee to beer, and back again. However, having adequate hydration is essential for performance and endurance and that means using an electrolyte mix to aid your body in what is lost from intense exercise.
Breanne Nalder Harward, a professional cyclist with accolades on the road and gravel circuits, knows this from her own experience. Add in that she’s also earned a Master of Science degree in Nutrition and Sports Dietetics from the University of Utah, coaches all types of athletes, and her advice is worth heeding.
“Adequate hydration is important to both the athlete’s health and performance. The word adequate is chosen here because we want to have the proper amount of water and electrolytes to keep our muscles functioning and to replenish what we lose during exercise,” says Harward, MS, RDN, and nutrition coach at PLAN7 Endurance Coaching.
Our bodies control internal temperature through a process called thermoregulation, in which we produce sweat to get rid of heat and as sweat evaporates off our skin it cools us down.
“The hotter we get during a workout, the more sweat we produce. Dehydration can cause muscle cramps, premature fatigue, increased recovery time, increased blood pressure and cardiovascular stress, and raises the risk of heat-related illness such as heat exhaustion and more dangerous, heatstroke,” says Harward.
Beginning any exercise well-hydrated is particularly important since dehydration diminishes performance and overall well being. This becomes imperative in the winter since the usual cues of becoming dehydrated are less evident—even though you aren’t drenched in sweat, your body needs to rehydrate.
Harward notes that while hydration is important, knowing exactly when, what, and how to drink during exercise is equally important. For instance, a process in which the body has more water than sodium (an electrolyte lost in perspiration) is called hyponatremia and can be a serious, potentially life-threatening issue.
“Think of a glass of water with salt. We want our bodies to have the proper solute: solvent ratio to maintain the needs of our muscles and other organs and tissues (such as the kidneys).” Hyponatremia can lead to convulsions, pulmonary edema, respiratory failure, and even cardiac arrest, Hwarward explains. Not only do we need to replenish lost fluid and electrolytes, but carbohydrates as well.
“For all of these reasons, we need sport drinks,” she says. “So, we must supplement our water with electrolytes and calories to stay on top of our performance.”
Harward recommends the standard protocol for hydration and supplementation as follows:
- For short activity (<60 minutes) of low to moderate intensity, water is adequate, as long as you go into the workout well hydrated.
- During moderate intensity (60-90 minutes), 1-2 bottles with added electrolytes are needed.
- High intensity (> 45 minutes, especially in the heat) and endurance training (>90 minutes) require hydration supplements. At those intensities and long durations, focus on 2 bottles/hr, at least one of those having electrolyte and carbohydrate mix.
Harward also says that sports drinks can be used for recovery as well. And while we’re referencing this to summer and future autumn workouts, as someone who ski tours daily a recovery drink has had a positive impact on my ability to keep chugging through the week. Sure I still have an après beer, but I do that after I slam a recovery drink and a bite of food.
With all this knowledge and so many products on the market, it can be overwhelming to determine which one works best. Haward says to determine your specific hydration needs and find the product that works for you. Not only by the numbers (calories, electrolytes, sugars, etc.) but the flavors, tastes, and tolerance levels.
“It is very important that you enjoy what you are drinking as it is helping you get exactly what you need for optimal performance,” she says.
With that in mind below are a few options that we tested, tasted, and sweated out over the past winter and during the current heatwave. Use this as a guide to determine what works best for you.
I began using Skratch products in 2015. The 100 percent plant-based ingredient mix has a gentle taste that isn’t syrupy and sits well in the stomach. It has a simple profile to replenish electrolytes that consists of 80 calories with 21g of carbs, and for me is the perfect companion on ski tour days since I’m going to have snacks and don’t need a higher calorie drink. It’s ideal for long ski tour days and less intense rides when it’s hot. I find it less beneficial on long and intense bike rides where I’m looking for more lactate buffers and energy support.
I’m a huge fan of First Endurance’s EFS, though they are about to debut an updated version of it so it’s out of stock most places. Their EFS Pro is the higher level formula, basically offered at a lower osmolality—meaning it can be absorbed easier and mixed in various strengths. For example, three scoops/one serving of EFS Pro is for 12 ounces.
It works well on hot days when road riding up and down the Cottonwood Canyons as it sits well in my stomach for hours on end with a subtle, light taste. However, it can be expensive when mixing up two 24-ounce bottles per ride and that’s why I usually use the regular EFS formula. Both have nothing in the way of artificial ingredients, and offer complete hydration and fueling, with an impressive electrolyte, carbohydrate, and amino acid formula.
Having using First Endurance EFS and EFS Pro primarily for the past few summers on the bike, I really enjoyed testing out GU’s Roctane. I opted for the Lemon Berry, which has 35mg of caffeine – and while the flavor had a bit of a Kool-Aid flavor to it, it was light and not chalky. GU’s Roctane has beta-alanine, which helps to deter muscle fatigue and lactic acid build-up, as well as branched-chain amino acids and Taurine.
One a recent century ride I found its composition to work well as I was teetering on cramping during bouts of high intensity towards the end, yet never crested into that threshold. The mix also contains 250 calories per serving, including 320mg of sodium, with 59g of carbohydrates. It’s a good balance that provides adequate hydration and fuel for long hard efforts.
Many of the really good drink mixes seem to have sprouted from athletes who started mixing their hydration formula for their athletic pursuits and combined nutritional science and research. Tailwind has just this story and began from a Leadville 100 racer after having issues with adequate nutrition during a race.
The idea is similar to GU’s Roctane, as it’s a hydration mix that also provides fuel for long and hard workouts. Each scoop contains 100 calories of all-natural and organic ingredients consisting of 25g of carbohydrates, 303mg of sodium, 35mg of caffeine, along with other electrolytes—I particularly liked the magnesium to aid in muscle cramping. I’ve used it for a couple of weeks now, including some solid bike workouts, and one long trail run in Grand Teton National Park in which I was able to go light and fast without much food. The taste was clear and light, I never bonked, and my stomach felt great. I’m looking forward to using this one more and trying it for ski touring next winter.