What makes a good hydration drink?

There are a lot of hydration (aka “sport”) drinks out there, ranging from the common Gatorade to esoteric ones like Gleukos. All make claims around why they are the best thing around and why all the other drinks suck.

So, I thought I’d write a bit about my understanding of what makes a good drink and help you decode some of the labels out there.

Calorie Density

The first thing that you need from a hydration drink is a sufficient calorie density. Most experts suggest 250 calories perhaps up to 350 calories per hour. So, you need a drink that has that many calories when mixed with a sufficient amount of liquid to make a reasonable dent in your hydration needs (sometimes you may need more or less water). That puts carbs in the 6% to 8% range. Drinks with fewer carbs don’t provide enough energy, and those with more don’t provide enough water.

Gastric Emptying & absorption

Once you have the sugar solution in your stomach, you need to get it absorbed into the bloodstream. The absorption of the water in the hydration drink is increased both by the presence of the sugar (within reason) and by the presence of electrolytes. Fructose is a bit different than other sugars in this respect – see later in the post for more info.


Sweetness is a primary factor in whether you drink enough to meet your energy and hydration needs. There are two important points here:

  1. A sweetness that tastes good at rest is likely too sweet for a workout beverage, so you won’t drink enough of it…

The second point is the most important one. Sucrose (table sugar) is arbitrarily given a value of 100 on the sweetness scale. The good hydration drink makers use different sugars to give you a product that isn’t too sweet but still packs enough carbs.

Acclerade is primarly sweetened with sucrose but uses Trehalose (sweetness=45) to tone the sweetness down, and also a bit of citric acid to make it more sour.

Perpetuem is at the other end of the spectrum, using Maltodextrin, which doesn’t have much sweetness at all, and to be frank, has a bit of a weird taste to it.


There is some good research around the benefits of adding protein to hydration drinks. Accelerade claims that their 4:1 ratio (using whey protein) is the best, Hammer claims that their 7:1 ratio (using soy protein) is the best.

I like the protein, but it does make water bottles a bit messy. I soak mine full of water overnight to make them easier to clean, but you should still make sure never to put the lid on a dry bottle, lest it mold.


Electrolytes are added to hydration drinks to speed their absorption. They also can replace the electrolytes lost to sweat but aren’t usually present in amounts that will replace all the lost electrolytes, so you may need to supplement.

Simple or Complex carbs?

There is a lot of marketing out there on the advantages of complex carbs or glucose polymers over simpler sugars. I’m somewhat skeptical of the claims of benefits (other than their lack of sweetness) – maltodextrin is (for example) rapidly broken down into dextrose.

Food Fatigue

If you ride for long periods – say, more than 3 hours – it’s not unlikely to find yourself unable to stomach another swig of your drink. This is known as “food fatigue”, and is a good argument for a variety of foods rather than a single one. 

Bad Ideas:

Plain Water

Water by itself is bad for a few reasons.

Most obviously, water doesn’t have any caloric value, so it doesn’t help towards your energy needs. But there is a more important reason…

When you are sweating, your body is trying to maintain both your blood volume and the sodium concentration in your blood. If your blood volume goes down, you get thirsty, but if you drink plain water, that ends up diluting the sodium concentration in your blood, and your thirst is turned off.

Not to mention the fact that water is absorbed less quickly by itself, which may lead to a waterlogged (ie “sloshy”) feeling.

Now, if you’re using gels, solid food, or a concentrated drink, then when you add water, you get a good mixture, so that’s okay.

Fructose in drinks

Pre-mixed “original” Gatorade and powerade are both sweetened with high fructose corn syrup. Fructose is a bit of a weird sugar that has a couple of disadvantages:

First, it has a different absorption mechanism that limits how much you can absorb over time. If you get more than the amount that can be absorbed, the rest will be unabsorbed in your digestive tract, which can lead to the dreaded “GI difficulties” (typically diarrhea). Some people have fructose malabsorption which may make this worse.

Second, fructose gets processed through the liver, and is useful primarily in replacing liver glycogen rather than muscle glycogen.

In hydration drinks, the sweetness of fructose is also a severe disadvantage, and premixed gatorade is quite sweet but low on calorie density.

So, fructose is a bad choice as a primary sweetener, but not a problem as a secondary ingredient.

Powdered Gatorade does not have fructose, and their “endurance” formula is a combination of sucrose, glucose, and fructose, so those are likely better choices.

Fruit Juice

Fruit juice has (no surprise) a lot of fructose in it, and tends to be very sweet.


Bicycle Adventures San Juan Islands Family Camping Tour

My family (me, my wife, and 13-year-old daughter) spent the beginning of this week on a family tour of the San Juan Islands run by Bicycle Adventures.

This is our second tour with Bicycle Adventures – two years ago we did their Columbia River Gorge Family Tour, and had a great time. If you have an active family I heartily recommend any of their family tours – you don’t need to be a cyclist to have a lot of fun.

This one was to be a bit different, simply because it was a *camping* tour. Now, as a rule, the Gunnersons do not camp. Both my wife and I have had plenty of camping experiences in our childhoods, which I will summarize as “take a long trip to get there, set up the tent, eat some camp food, get lots of mosquito bites, and ultimately wake up in a wet sleeping bag from the rain”.

But in this case it’s “camping light” – we *did* sleep in a tent, but there was real plumbing to be had and we didn’t have to do any cooking, so, we decided to bend the rules in this case.

All the Bicycle adventures tours are multi-sport tours – which means that you do something other than riding your bicycle. For the family tours, you spend less time riding and the rides are pretty short – which means that you don’t have to be a cyclist to do one (though if you are a cyclist, you can get in a few extra miles here and there, but don’t expect to get 50 mile days on the family tour).

This trip we ended up with 8 adults and 6 kids, and 3 guides, which is a fairly big trip for BA, but small enough that you can fit in one van and actually get to know the other people on the group.

The other thing to note is that while you pay a fair amount ahead of time, you don’t pay for anything during the tour. Meals are paid for, ice cream at the end of rides, ferry fares, etc. That lets you focus on relaxing…

So, here’s what we did:


Sunday the group met at the Anacortes marina. We drove, but some of the other families (from New York, Austin, and Palo Alto) were picked up at their Seattle hotels. We rode to the Guemes Island ferry, took it across, and then got lunch at the General Store there. After lunch, we rode around the island a bit – a way for the guests to get used to cycling again, and for the guides to get the feel of the group. Six of the kids were on their own bikes, with the youngest two on trailercycles. The three of us were the only ones that brought our bikes (my Madone, my wife’s new Trek 5000 WSD, and my daughter’s specialized) – the rest rented them.

At the midpoint the group split – the three of us went and did the northwest side of the island, and the rest rode straight back, to catch the ferry.

Ferry rides are a fact of life in the San Juans, and you are sometime constrained by having to race to get to a specific ferry. It’s like the weather – you just learn to accept it.

So… We caught the ferry back to Anacortes, and then rode across town (perhaps 3 miles) to the Anacortes ferry, and then went on with our bikes. After about 40 minutes, we arrived at Lopez Island, our base for the next 4 days. But first, we had to ride up from the ferry dock. Lopez is one of the flattest islands, but it’s still an island, and you have to get up from the water. That took us to Lopez Farm Cottages, where we would camp.

As is typical of BA trips, the area was ready for us, with our REI tents already set up, and snacks set out in the shelter (chips, salsa, beer, etc.). A nice dinner of barbecued tri-tip finished off the day.


Monday is spent cycling around Lopez island, visiting Spencer Spit State Park, Agate Beach State Park (for lunch), Shark Reef Sanctuary (for nice views on the hot side of the island, and a view of some stellar sea lions on nice days), and then Lopez Village for ice cream, and finally back to the campsite. That’s about 30 miles total, which may seem like a long distance if you aren’t a cyclist, but you have a long time to do it, and everybody in the group finished nicely. The traffic is fairly sparse and well behaved, though some of the road surface is chipseal (tar with gravel tossed on top of it and then rolled in), which makes it a bit rough and slow at times on a road bike. If you’re on one of the rental bikes, you won’t notice the roughness though it will make things a bit more slowly.  Dinner was pork chops and corn on the cob.


Tuesday is a day spent on the water. The group gets on the ferry to Friday Harbor on San Juan island, where we took a whale watching tour around the island. We saw a small number of Orcas close up, and a whole lot of other whale-watching boats. After we got back in Friday harbor, we took the ferry back to Lopez for a dinner of sockeye salmon.


Wednesday we… surprise! got on a ferry to travel to Orcas island, to journey to Moran State Park and climb Mt. Constitution. On our feet. We ended up with a hike of about 4.5 miles with about 2400 feet of elevation gain. The climb is well worth it, with sweeping views of the whole region from the tower at the top. If you want some pain, you can ride your bike to the top, and I understand that they allow car drivers to just drive up with it.

We had to catch an early ferry back (inter-island ferries have very sporadic schedules), and got back to the campsite at around 4PM. I headed out for a bit of training in the heat. The island is a lot nicer at normal speeds – the chipseal is less jarring with less weight on the saddle, and there is a nice selection of rolling hills to stretch your legs on. I ended up doing about 20 miles in the heat (my polar said the peak heat was 112 degrees).


Thursday was our last day – we got up, packed up, and headed to spencer spit to go sea kayaking. We had an nice time exploring the area around the park on the kayaks, then ferried back to Anacortes to come home.


Overall, a very enjoyable trip with a great group of people. Having a full itenerary and not having to pay for anything means that all you have to worry about is filling your water bottles and putting on sunscreen.

Definitely recommended.

Carbs – the good, the bad and the ugly

When is sugar okay

Different kinds of sugar

Sugar metabolism and absorption



Carbohydrates have gotten a pretty bad reputation in the last few years – a not entirely undeserved reputation – for the bad effects that it can have on you. What is often not appreciated is that role of carbohydrates in exercise. So, I thought I’d write a little something that (with any luck) will make the whole subject less confusing.

I’m also going to simplify a bunch of information. Let me know if I went too far.

Carbohydrates and blood sugar 

Your body has regulation mechanisms to keep your blood sugar level constant. When it gets low, you get hungry.

And then, presumably, you eat. Through a wonderful and intricate process, the food gets digested, and your blood sugar goes up. And now, the important part:

The way in which your blood sugar changes depends on what carbs you eat.

This is described in a very simplistic way by a measure known as the Glycemic Index. You determine this by giving a group of volunteers a small portion of different foods and measure how much their blood sugar goes up over a specific time.

And then you end up with a chart that gives a value for each food (well, actually, two values. There is one scale where glucose=100 and another where white bread=100).

Why does this matter? Well, if you eat high glycemic foods, you get a spike in your blood sugar, which your body tries to regulate down with the release of insulin which pulls the sugar out of your blood and stores it as fat. Unfortunately, the insulin response is too much, which causes your blood sugar to drop, which makes you hungry, so you eat again.

Over time, this is believed to lead to insulin resistance, where the body stops responding to the insulin and the blood sugar stays high. At that point, you have type 2 diabetes, or are close to it.

This effect has been immortalized in the “I ate chinese food, but an hour later I’m hungry again”. Chinese food is often eaten with a lot of white rice, which has a fairly high glycemic index.

But, it’s not as simple as all that. First of all, it’s not just the glycemic index that is important but the amount of carbs in the food you eat. Carrots have a very high glycemic index but don’t contain much carbohydrate so they have little effect. The glycemic index is also a function of the whole meal, not just one component, and fats and protein both have a moderating impact on the glycemic index of carbs.

Sugar in your diet

effects of all sugars, including fructose

Sugar Absorption & Conversion

The ultimate destination of carbs is glucose, which is either used directly in the brain (and muscles), or stored in the liver and muscles and glycogen.

But first, the carbohydrate needs to be converted to glucose.

 glycemic index drawbacks.





insulin response





50 nice miles, 30 bad ones…

On Saturday I went out to get some quality miles in preparation for Ramrod. Because I rode with my wife and daughter on the flying wheels 25 mile route, I didn’t get my usual century in, which means that the longest ride I’ve done this year is the 60 (ish) miles on the 7 hills 11 hills metric (ish). I felt great on that ride, but that’s far short of the 145 miles that I’ll be doing on Ramrod, and I really wanted some serious time to work on my pace and fuel strategy.

I elected to start with the FW 50 miler and add on from there. The first couple of hours was pretty nice – my strategy is to work to keep my HR below 130 BPM (higher is okay on big hills) and my cadence above 90 RPM. So, I slogged up Inglewood, flew up Ames lake, took a quick nature break in Carnation, and then rode to fall city and up fall city-issaquah.

At that point I felt pretty well, and descending back into Issaquah at 45MPH always makes me smile. But then it started to unravel.

First of all, my stomach (fueled on accelerade and a bagel) was a bit unsettled, and I seemed to be a bit dehydrated and down on salt. I had a bit of jerky which tasted great (and helped), but I’m reluctant to depend on my desire for salt because I’m a sodium-based snacker. Going through Issaquah, I went to sprint at a stoplight and manage to tweak my IT band on my right leg (I’ve been doing some PRK stretches, and I think that was contributory). Which was bad – it was twinging fairly significantly.

I had originally thought that I might climb the zoo, but decided instead to get over the hill on 164th, the easiest route. I rode very easy on my smallest gear (something like a 37/27), made it to the top, and stopped at Lewis Creek park for water and to stretch.

Which helped immensely. I descended the back side of the hill to coal creek, crossed, and then descended down and over 405. That series is probably my favorite one around – you lose 800′ on the trip from the top of Lakemont all the way down to the water, and there are few places where you need to brake.

I got on the trail, rode to Kirkland, and felt a little better up Market and up through Juanita, and then took the trail back home. But a few problems persisted:

1) My energy was really, really weird. I felt okay on the trail but had trouble keeping my speed down.

2) When I went to climb home (up 171st from W. Lake Sam), I was really out of oomph. I was clearly eating enough and had okay hydration, and my speed wasn’t that high, so I’m not sure what it was.

Anyway, checking the download on my polar, it was 80 in 5:10, which put me at about 15.5, pretty good considering how easy I rode the first 50. And I ended up with 3500 feet of vertical, more than I expected (164th added a bunch).

My analysis is that 1) The accelerade isn’t working on the longer distances and 2) I need more electrolytes. I bought some Perpetuem at Gregg’s (who inexplicably only had the unflavored), and some endurolytes, and the perpetuem worked well on my Tuesday night ride, though I had to cut it with half a scoop of accelerade to cover the weird flavor.

Older cycling posts…

The posts that I referenced in my comparative insanity all came from my work(ish) blog. You can find all the cycling posts listed here.

Progressive insanity…

Cycling is an exercise in progressive insanity. No matter where you’re at, there’s always somebody who’s just that little bit crazier than you are, no, not the total whackos that do things that are ridiculous, but just that next little step…

It all starts with riding an hour on the flattest roads that you have around, and finding that pretty challenging. And maybe one day, you ride for two hours, and it wipes you out, but you’re happy you did it.

And then meet somebody who is doing a charity ride, and you think “maybe I can ride 50 miles” at once – it’s pretty intimidating, but you ride some more, and then you finish it, and you’re happy, but dead.

The next year, you decide that you’ll do a century. This is a real milestone, and you can tell its a real milestone by the reaction of the people you mention it to. “In a day?” they say. And you do the century, but you’re slow, and while you finish, you don’t have a lot of fun.

The next year, you do a bit better in the century, and then you do a multi-day ride.

And then you start riding with a group – not a hardcore group, but a group that just likes to ride. You get a new bike – a fast one – and suddenly that century isn’t a goal event but a training ride on the way to a double. That two-hour ride that used to be a goal event is now the minimum – you don’t leave the house for less than two hours. And you start adding hills to your rides *on purpose*. You even start up a website devoted to hills.

You start looking for the hilly organized rides. You do one, two, three, four, and in there you throw in a double century.

And then you decide that RAMROD looks like fun. It’s 143 miles with 10,000 feet of climbing.

A long time ago at my job, I met a co-worker who was into cycling, and he told me about RAMROD. I had driven the route that he rode, and I thought that he was absolutely bonkers.

And now, in three weeks, I will also be officially bonkers.

The scary part is that as I’ve progressed, I still know people who are just marginally more crazy than I am, and that makes me seriously worried.

You’re working too hard

I get the opportunity to see lots of new riders on our group rides, and there’s a common thread that shows up over and over.

Nearly everybody who is new is working out too hard, and many people are working out too much. What do I mean by this?

Well, to get better at cycling, you need to focus on both your anaerobic and aerobic systems. But the way you focus on these is totally different.

Your aerobic system training is best done at a fairly light intensity – one at which you can still talk comfortably. This is sometimes known as “base miles” or “LSD (Long Steady Distance)”. This sort of riding helps your body get better at getting oxygen to your muscles, better at using your stored flat, and (very importantly) builds up your muscles and ligaments to deal with increased loads. Pros and races put in 1000s of miles at these sort of intensities.

I think of this sort of riding as setting your baseline.

Once the baseline is set – which is a 6-8 week process (or more) – then you can add some intensity to the mix to work on the anaerobic system. This involves interval work – things like 1 minute all out, 1 minute recovery, repeated 6 times, or hill repeats, where you do the same hillclimb over and over. The details are a subject of another post, but these workouts increase your ability to produce power, and your ability to deal with short exertions and recover quickly. And they’re very small in quantity – you might only do 2 sets of 4 intervals in a workout.

This is also the time to add in tempo rides. Tempo rides are done right below around your lactate threshold (another big subject, but where your legs start to hurt when you’re out of breath is a decent starting point) and last from 15 minutes to perhaps 30 minutes. Tempo rides improve your ability to deal with lactic acid, so that you can ride at a higher heart rate but still staying aerobic.

What I see in beginning riders is working out as hard as they can for the whole ride. And that works fairly well when you start riding – frankly, pretty much anything works well when you start riding – but it has problems once you start to get some fitness. That pace is fast enough that there is a significant anaerobic component, which is much faster than optimal to train your aerobic system. And, even though it feels like you’re going really hard, you are riding too fast to be able to do your intervals all out.

So, if you want to get better, you need to get in the base miles, and then you need to have focused workouts of very high intensity with limited duration.