This much we know: If you ride your bike for extended periods of time, you need more than water to sustain your body. Electrolytes, carbohydrates, sodium, protein, they're all part of the necessary cocktail to keep you rolling down the road without running out of energy, bonking or worse.
But what's the right way (and ratio) to ingest all these on-bike necessities? It's a tough question without a definitive answer. Some people do better hydrating via the bottle and fueling with solid (or gel) food from the jersey pocket. Others can sustain themselves on all-in-one liquid concoctions. And what about after your ride? What's the best way to recover, ensuring you'll be ready to ride again the next day - or just not be a zombie at your desk.
For answers (or at least opinions) to these questions and others relevant to the conversation, RoadBikeReview conducted extensive interviews with the front-men (and woman) of three of the cycling world's most well-known drink makers, Osmo's Dr. Stacy Sims, Skratch Labs founder Dr. Allen Lim, and Infinit Nutrition president Michael Folan. Each brings extensive experience and know-how to the conversation, but also some major variations in opinion.
Sims served as an exercise physiologist and sport nutritionist at Stanford University from 2007- 2012, and has also served as physiologist and nutrition specialist for pro cyclists such as Lance Armstrong, Andy Schleck and the Garmin pro team.
Lim is a sports physiologist and cycling coach, who served as director of sport science for Garmin and RadioShack cycling teams and is the only American scientist to have worked and cooked for teams at the Tour de France.
Folan is an avid runner, mountain and road bike racer, along with being a 10-time Ironman finisher with a PR of 10:14. He played NCAA lacrosse and hockey in college, and continues to race Ironman distance triathlons.
In part one of this three-part series, we asked each panelist to give us the elevator pitch for their company's on-bike product, and make an argument for solid on-bike food vs. liquid on-bike food. In parts two and three, we'll get their top-line advice on post-ride recovery, find out what they think of the endurance drink industry as a whole, and find out how each would recommend testing one product against another.
RoadBikeReview: Give us the elevator pitch for your company and its products, and make it an answer that your average weekend warrior can digest without a science textbook.
Osmo's Dr. Stacy Sims: For people who don't care about ratios and just want to know what works, I tell them to think about basic human physiology. You can last about three weeks without food, but just three days without water. And the main part of your blood is water, so if you lose body water then your blood volume drops. That means you don't get enough blood to the muscles, you don't get enough blood to the skin. The whole premise of Osmo, then, is to support blood volume and support hydration It's not about calories.
People think that if they don't have enough calories that they are going to lose power. But in actuality if you lose body water you lose power because you lose the blood flow to the muscles. The other aspect is that everybody's caloric needs are different depending on gender, how long they have been racing, distance, if they are lean or not lean, time of year, intensity, and so on. So taking care of your hydration to keep your blood volume up, and then picking the right type of food that you need for what you are doing is so much better for the body.
Skratch Labs' Allen Lim: The No. 1 thing is that what we make is something to replace what you lose in sweat. Our product in a nutshell is an all-natural sports drink that wont give you gut rot. The product was born from problems I encountered while working with the Garmin team. There were constant complaints from guys getting upset stomachs and flavor fatigue.
Our big differentiator is that we have minimized the number of ingredients; it's just a little bit of sugar to help fuel muscles, electrolytes for what is lost in sweat, and finally a little bit of flavor, just enough taste without mucking up the palate. What we use is natural unlike some sort of flavoring agent that ends up sticking on the palette and causing flavor fatigue. The bottom line is that you are getting dehydrated and that can impair performance significantly. Also we understand that people's needs are very individual, so it's up to them to use their own body as an experiment and figure out what works best. The idea that every person in the world will like the same thing is a fallacy.
Infinit Nutrition's Michael Folan: We are a company started by people with extensive Ironman experience who all did the same thing at one point, which was some variation of juggling gels, salt pills and drinks while on the bike. Well one of our guys had a science background, so what we have devised is an isotonic solution that provides everything you need in a bottle in order to keep things simple. That is the crux of what we do is that we are a very simple company. Drink and ride. That's it.
We believe there is a huge appeal in that concept, just to not have to worry about it. Our long distance product has all the calories, electrolytes - caffeine if you want it - and protein in a solution that will give you zero stomach problems. That way you don't have to carry around pockets full of food. Besides it's difficult to do a science project while riding your bike, and a lot of times you'll get it wrong anyway. We deliver a consistent 285 calories an hour, making it difficult to mess up.
RoadBikeReview: Make an argument for or against getting hydration and fueling needs from your bottle versus eating solid food while on the bike.
Infinit Nutrition's Michael Folan: Well, clearly for rides beyond about two hours we are in the all-in-one camp with our :Go Far formula, that as I said, delivers a consistent 285 calories an hour. With Osmo and Skratch they add the food in your pocket thing. Well, unless you are a sponsored athlete being told what to do, I think it's a crapshoot. It can work, but often it doesn't so we believe in taking that variability out of the equation. I think reducing the possibilities of screwing your day up leads to performance gains.
Osmo's Dr. Stacy Sims: A lot of people may think that they need their calorie and hydration needs in a bottle. But to me that is like a sofa bed, it's not a good bed, it's not a good sofa. You may think that you are drinking enough, but you are not absorbing the fluids because it's too concentrated for your intestines to pull the water through. In fact it's the reverse. Your body dumps water from the blood into the stomach and intestines to dilute everything while trying to figure out what to do with all those carbohydrates. Plus most of those type products primarily use maltodextrin and fructose, which are both known to cause GI distress because when they get into the intestines you can get that gassy bloated feeling.
Many companies are not actually looking at the science and that's frustrating. It's a quagmire of misinformation. People need to come back to the idea of what their body really needs, which is to be hydrated. That means a little glucose and sodium because that is what facilitates water absorption. Hydration is one thing, fuel is another, but people have gotten lazy. Honestly it is simple to separate the two if you put some time into figuring it out.
Skratch Labs' Allen Lim: I'm not necessarily on one side of that line or the other. What you have to think about is how much water you lose and then how many calories you are burning. There are plenty of situations where you are sweating more but burning less calories. If it's really hot, but you're not working very hard then food isn't necessary, just drinking. But if you are not sweating a lot, but burning calories, then your food requirement is much greater.
Generally speaking, what I think is interesting is that a lot of products that have all the calories in the bottle don't work. It's not because drinking calories is a bad idea, but I think drinking all your calories at one time is a bad idea. What happens when you eat real food is that you lower the concentration of your hydration because liquid can empty from the gut a lot faster than food can. By having a lower concentration of liquid, and by having more food calories that go through the whole process of digestion, you are allowing the calories to trickle in rather than getting these big spikes.
Most of the time when people have a dip in glucose, they try to jam a lot of shit in their mouth. If that is liquid they are opening up the floodgates that can cause bloating, GI distress or even diarrhea. But if they were to develop an eating strategy where calories come in at a more consistent rate then it would probably be okay. It's not either or. It's about being smart about letting the calories come in a certain rate because your gut can only handle so much at a time.
Editor's Note: Check back soon for part 2 of this three-part series where our panelists give their advice on post-ride recovery and tell us what they think of the endurance drink industry as a whole.