HERE ARE A FEW BRIEF TIPS for surviving the summer heat while riding your bike. There are dozens of articles by experts that will give you the deep science about body heat and fluids and other stuff. And if all those numbers and matrices make you feel more confident, then by all means read the articles.
As for me, I’m not an expert in physiology, but I’ve survived some pretty stupid stunts in my time, and I can certainly share some wisdom from practical experience. I’ve ridden my bike in the 115+ degree heat of the parched Sonoran Desert of Arizona, as well as the 98 degree, 96 percent humidity of the Gulf Coast states. And while everyone tolerates heat differently, the following pointers will give you some measure of safety when riding in the summer heat.
Listen to your body
The first and most important rule is: Use common sense. You have to make adjustments in your riding program. You can’t ride in the summer heat at the same intensity you ride in the 60 and 70 degree temps of spring and expect to excel. Your body is highly adaptive, but you need to gradually build-up your heat coping mechanism. Spend the first couple of weeks in summer heat “working into it”.
Your body is talking to you. You know when something isn’t right. If you’re feeling weak, or dizzy or chilled when you should be feeling hot, something is going wrong and you should stop and reevaluate your condition.
Avoid unnecessary heat if you can. Try to schedule your rides in the early morning, or the late afternoon when the sun isn’t so intense. Or, scout out some routes that provide more shade.
Learn how to drink. In other words, don’t ride like a Tour de France competitor for 45 minutes and then slam 20 ounces of water to catch up. Sip your fluids, a couple of gulps every few minutes. When I’m out on a hot day, I drink approximately every 4-miles: a gulp of Gatorade with two gulps of water after it. But everyone is different. You’ll have to discover your own rate of hydration, but it should have consistency.
Discover your best hydration practice
Learn what to drink. Water is a given, but you need more than water. You need a mineral and electrolyte replacement drink. Blood doesn’t work well if it gets too watered down (hyponatremia), and that’s what can happen if on a hot, sweaty day you drink only water for an extended period. The main ingredients that help keep you stabilized are sodium, potassium, chloride and magnesium. These are available in many sports drinks and water additives. I often drink Gatorade, but not all cyclists can tolerate Gatorade. Some of the other products available are NUUN, Clif Shots and Clif Blocks, Camelbak Elixir and Accelerade, to name just a few. If you get too dehydrated or too “watered down” your endurance wanes, recovery takes longer, or worse, you could put yourself in a serious condition. Experiment with proper hydration to see what works best for you, and what your stomach can tolerate.
Another way to maintain sodium in your blood on a hot, sweaty day, is to try munching on salty foods along your ride. Salted peanuts, beef jerky or similar prepared foods help you maintain your sodium levels. I know a few long-distance cyclists who buy one of those jumbo dill pickles at every convenience store stop.
In the heat of the summer, water and sports drinks get warm on your bike. When you make a stop put some ice in your drinks or buy a cold drink. Putting cool fluids into your system will help keep your core temperature down. Experimentation is in order here as well. Super cold water on a hot ride gives some riders stomach cramps, so go easy at first.
And finally, water is not just for drinking. If you have an ample supply, and need a cool down, consider pouring water over your head, down your neck or over your shoulders. It can provide some welcome relief in the heat of the day. The same is true for an ice-sock. I’ve never used one, but I’m told it works well.
Reflect and dissipate heat
I love cotton fabric. But not for cycling on hot days. Cotton gets wet and stays wet. It won’t effectively wick the sweat from your body and when it’s stuck to your skin with sweat, it won’t allow you to dissipate heat. There are many technical fabrics available that are better for summer cycling. Check out Boure’, Garneau or Canari. Read what they have to say about their clothing and you’ll see the benefits.
Also, give some thought to light colors to reflect the sun, and long sleeves to keep the sun off your arms. There’s a good reason the desert dwelling Arabs are always covered up,no matter how high the temperature. I bought a long sleeve summer jersey and wore it for the first time recently. It works very well to keep my skin surface for overheating.
Stop in the shade and off the hot pavement. Shade is not always available, but if you have to repair a flat tire try to do it in the shade. If you stop to rest, try to find a comfortable spot in the shade.
Try using a helmet with adequate ventilation. Here’s a look at styles of helmets available, you’ll notice some are well vented and some are not. On a hot summer day, you’re going to want some air circulating over the top of your head.
Common sense, acclimatization and proper hydration will help you steer clear of over-heating while riding in high temps and humidity. The bottom line on all of this is to understand the messages your body sends and know it's limitations.
Everyone is unique, so experiment to see what works best for you, and enjoy riding this summer. You might also want to join the National Bike Challenge. It’s FREE, FUN, and you might even win a prize.