Beat the Heat – Keeping Cool on the Trail
Beat the Heat – Keeping Cool on the Trail
Taking your bike off the blacktop and onto the trails is one of the best ways to enjoy yourself, but it can be tiring. And once the temperature starts to rise, the effects of physical exertion will be further increased for every degree on the thermometer. If you’re not careful a gentle bimble in the country can become an exhausting fight against the elements as your body tries keeping cool faster than you are warming it up.
So in an effort to assist, we thought we’d look at what exactly is causing the problems and what you can do to help yourself when you go riding in hot conditions.
By far your biggest enemy when out in the heat is the amount of water you are losing. Even during light riding in cool conditions you are losing a proportion of your internal fluids through sweating, Rack up the intensity and the temperature and that is only going to rocket too.
And this is no bad thing – sweating is the most effective way that we can lose heat and we are designed to do it. As sweat evaporates it cools the surface of the skin and the blood that is running in the capillaries just below, which in turn helps to cool the entire body. This ‘evaporative cooling’ is an essential to maintaining our core temperature within sensible boundaries because if we get too hot, it can lead to real medical problems.
But while sweating can solve a problem, it can also create one. Our bodies might be 60% water but if we are profusely sweating and breathing heavily from muscling a bike off-road, then it won’t take long to drop that percentage. Replenishing those fluids is essential, because if we don’t the body will start taking the water from blood and tissue – this is not good news.
As blood thickens, it travels more sluggishly round the body and can carry less oxygen than normal, which in turn leads to increased muscle fatigue and muscle cramps. In an effort to overcome this, the heart rate increases but this will also serve to raise the internal temperature even more. It’s a vicious circle.
To give this some context, a 2% fluid loss for a 12 stone rider will translate to about 1.5 litres. By the time you have lost this amount, you will already be already a far poorer rider than when you started. The risk of cramp will be higher, your decision-making will not be as sharp and your riding will be appreciably worse.
If this fluid loss increases to 5%, then you are in genuine medical risk – your body will attempt to shut itself down to prevent further damage. This may manifest itself in terms of sickness, dizziness and even collapse.
DON’T WAIT, HYDRATE
OK so with all this focus on fluid levels, it’s pretty obvious that we need to replenish those levels regularly. Don’t wait until you feel thirsty as by that time you are already dehydrated and you’ll be fighting a battle that dehydration is already winning.
But even if you are not feeling particularly thirsty, you may still be low on levels. Urine colour is a good indicator so if it’s clear or a colour like white wine, then things are all good. If it starts to be darker – lager colour or beyond – then you really need some fluids pretty damn sharpish.
One way to reduce the potential effects of losing fluids while you are riding is to pre-empt the problem. If you are going to be going out on the trails in higher temperatures then ensuring that you are fully topped up before you start is a smart move.
This doesn’t mean chugging a massive bottle of Evian just before you hit the start button – that will just leave you feeling full and make very little difference than having to head into the bushes in the first hour. More sensible is to drink a little and often in the hours before you head out, and if you are heading on a big trip, maybe extend that into the day before.
MORNING AFTER BLUES
Correct hydration is particularly important if you are adventure riding and the evenings involve a certain amount of alcohol consumption. The effect of the night before will be even worse if you don’t get some serious amounts of water back into your system before you start sweating it out.
We’ve heard riders use Ibuprofen to because of the anti-diuretic properties, but you should take medical advice before heading this way. For a safer approach ensure you drink water before bed and plenty of fluids the next morning so you start the day fully hydrated.
WATER OR WHAT?
What to drink will depend on when you are drinking, Prior to the ride, then water and simple fruit squashes will be fine. Avoid coffee and drinks with caffeine and try to stay away from the sugar-laden energy drinks. If you can’t abide just water then head for the more natural products rather than the fluorescent chemical concoctions.
If you prefer fruit juices, head for apple and grape rather than orange juice as proportionally the OJ contains less carbohydrates and has a higher acidity than the others.
When you are out on the bike, you should be rehydrating with either plain water, weak squash at the very least.
However, as you are going to be losing not only water but also electrolytes too through sweating, then replacing these is a sensible move. Isotonic drinks – those with the same concentration of minerals as blood and cells – are going to be best as you are directly replacing what you are losing. These drinks are absorbed far quicker into your blood than other drinks and because of their matching concentration, the body uses far less energy absorbing them. It’s a win win.
After the ride – then isotonics are good too. Chugging a super concentrated can of a high-caffeine energy drinks might seem like it’s replenishing lost calories, but if you are down on fluids, is likely to be a bad move.
NEED SOME ADVENTURE IN YOUR LIFE?
OK so now we’ve looked at what’s actually happening inside your body, let’s look at what we can put outside to counteract the effects of exertion in higher temperatures.
The main thing we can do to help ourselves is pretty obvious. Drinking little and often is exactly what we should be doing, and hence riding with a drinks reservoir is the first solution we should reach for.
There is an enormous amount of products on the market, from market leaders Camel Bak and Kreiga down to cheaper versions from your budget supermarkets. All will essentially do the same thing of containing fluids in a rucksack or bum bag that is accessible through a bite valve. More expensive versions mat have a fitment that allows hands free drinking via a helmet connector – useful to motocross and enduro racers, but reasonably unnecessary for hobby and adventure riders.
A word of caution here – don’t try to carry too fluid much on your back. The bag will be large and hence keep your back hot, the fluid will get unpleasantly warm and the weight will become an issue. Around two litres is probably a good rule of thumb as two kilos hanging off your shoulders is probably enough, especially is you are moving around a lot.
ALL ABOUT THE BASE
You might think that having very little on will be the best option, but if you look as people from hot countries, this is rarely the case. The development of technical base layers that wick moisture away fro the skin and allow it to evaporate have taken this idea far beyond the desert and into the forefront of sports technology.
From Alpinestars to Force Field, there are plenty of companies offering a range of close fitting base layers that will, despite your reservation, keep you cooler than riding with bare skin. And don’t just take our word for it – the Dakar boys know what they are talking about
ITS GREAT TO VENTILATE
Getting a good flow of air to your limbs and core is important, and that’s not going to happen if you have thick and dense materials covering you. From enduro jackets to race shirts, then levels of in-built ventilation to encourage air flow is good.
For motocross shirts – the stock item for most enduro and trail riders in hot conditions, then heading for their summer specific shirts is the best option. Ventilated fabrics will let the wind through, but still keep the sun out – the ideal combination.
And if that’s too expensive, then just taking a scalpel blade to an old shirt will have a similar effect – just make sure you take it off beforehand and don’t do it on the dining room table.
Lots of little slits will work well rather than big cuts!
SOAK IT UP
For more extremes of temperature, you can choose to up the ante. Cooling vests are the easiest option, as you just soak them in cool water before a ride and the evaporation of the water gently cools you through the day. The advantage is that they can be topped up on the trail to continue working, but the disadvantage is that they are not much use in really humid conditions.
At around £60 they are a cheap entry-level option, but the more you put over the top of them, the less effective they can be. They can offer between five and ten hours of cooling, so ideal for the distance traveller.
A step up from a wet vest are cooling tops with gel inserts. These keep cool for a specific period of time, usually about two hours. For racers these are a good option as they will last a full moto and are far more comfortable than the ones that contain ice packs. But for adventure or trail riders the use is really limited, as you don’t get much adventuring done in two hours.
Both the soaking and gel products are used extensively in motocross, Formula 1, by emergency services and military clients across the world, so can be reasonably sure that the technology works. They even make them for dogs!
And don’t forget those feet, Encased in huge plastic boots, our feet can get pretty warm and hence anything you can do to reduce the temperature in your Sidis is a good move. Buying proper motocross socks with the same wicking and cooling properties as those base layers is the way forward, and the fact that they make you look like the Cat In the Hat is just an unexpected bonus.
OK so with the science and the products covered lets look at ways you can minimise the effects of heat during your ride.
When you are travelling in hot climates, it makes sense to schedule your day to avoid the highest temperatures. Get up early and get a good proportion of your riding done before the heat gets intense. It’s a simple and cheap option.
As the song goes, it’s only mad dogs and Englishmen that go out in the midday sun, so don’t add yourself to this list. Try to take a riding break when the centigrade is at its peak, that way you can sit in the shade over lunch as the heat passes by, without frying you to a crisp.
BREAK IT UP
When the going gets sweltering, try to stop regularly so you can take a good drink and get out of the sun. In humid conditions this is less effective as without movement you feel you are getting hotter, but at least you rest tiring muscles and allow you head to get out of that helmet.
CUT IT DOWN
Unless travelling massive distances is essential to your journey plan – if so it’s a bad plan – then you should be looking to reduce your riding time in very hot days. It’s hard on the bike, it’s hard on you and both factors increase the possibility of getting into difficulties. Chill out, enjoy the scenery and allow yourself time away from the heat to properly recover each day.
OK so that’s where we’ll end this blog. Let us know if this has helped and share your tip for riding in hot conditions with us.