The Science of Cycling in Summer
During the summer of 1957, the United States government decided to do a little experiment with their air conditioners. Having tracked the productivity of their typists (people who spent all day, every day, hammering away at typewriters), they began to fiddle with their air conditioners as the outside temperatures began to rise. Continuing to track the typists’ productivity, they pushed the temperature up, down, and everywhere in between. By the end of the summer, a simple pattern had emerged. The cooler the office, the more productive the employees. Similar studies in large indoor factories found that the introduction of air conditioning increased employee motivation, reduced the frequency of absence, and led to greater outputs.
The science behind this is simple; like a computer or a car’s engine, the human body has an ideal range of operating temperatures. As it approaches the limits of this range, things start to go wrong, and the body is no longer able to function at its best. I’ll be relating this idea to cycling for the rest of this column, but really it applies to any job. It can be the difference between getting the best out of yourself or your employees, and falling disappointingly short.
Now, staying cool isn’t always possible. Especially, for instance, at the bottom of an enormous mine pit. The only thing left to do, then, is to mitigate the negative effects of being hot.
When we’re hot we sweat, and with our sweat we lose electrolytes.
Electrolytes serve a wide range of purposes in the body. One of these is to facilitate the transport of electrical signals through the nerves, to the muscles. Unfortunately, it just so happens that electrolytes are transported around the body in solution, along with the water in our blood and muscles. Therefore, when we sweat we inadvertently lose electrolytes. And when we put the water back in, we rarely put electrolytes back in with it. The upshot is that when we sweat we are continuously throwing this important system out of balance. One of the symptoms of this is cramp.
This is a problem that plagued my athletic career for a long time. Then one day, quite unexpectedly, I stumbled across a solution, and I’ve never cramped since. For me, the solution was slow-release magnesium. I take one capsule before any race or hard work out, and I very often ride (and always race) with one or two capsules in my pocket.
For me, magnesium is so effective in preventing cramp that I can take a capsule as I feel the first signs of a cramp coming on, and within less than a minute, all signs of cramp are completely gone.
During the 2016 1Zambia, I rode each stage with 2 magnesium capsules in my pocket. Several times I felt the early signs of cramp, and immediately swallowed a capsule. Not once did a cramp actually take hold.
If you’ve ever watched a running marathon, you’ll likely have seen those soaked sponges on the side of the course. The athletes grab them and squeeze them over their heads to cool off. Of course, it’s nice and refreshing, and it might wash the sweat out of your eyes, but that cool water is doing more than that.
When the body gets hot, blood (which, in sport, should be occupied with the transportation of oxygen and nutrients to where they are needed) is diverted to the capillaries near the surface of the skin, where it can cool. Water (one of your body’s most valuable resources!) is pumped out of the pores on the skin, in order to achieve the cooling effect of evaporation.
So, by pouring cool water over your head, you’re not just making yourself feel cooler. You’re actually dramatically reducing the ‘tax’ that hot weather puts on your body. You’re allowing your blood to return to the job it was supposed to be doing, and you’re reducing the amount of sweat your body has to pump out. So even if the water you come across on a ride is in a little stream that you wouldn’t dare to drink from, just pouring it over your body or soaking your shirt can reduce the amount of water you’ll need to drink.
I read once that if two identical athletes (same height, weight, fitness level, genetics) race a marathon, the winner will be the athlete who is able to cool themselves more effectively during the race.
A hot summer isn’t all bad.
It’s a little-known fact that the majority of outdoor athletes are vitamin D deficient. This may seem odd, as vitamin D is generated when sunlight contacts the skin. But the next time you see a cricket player, try to estimate the total percentage of his/her surface area that is actually in the sun. It’s not much at all. A cricketer can stand in the sun all day and only generate as much vitamin D as a girl in a bikini can in 15 minutes. We’re vitamin D deficient because we cover up.
There are a million reasons why this is a bad thing.
A large number of studies are beginning to link high cholesterol and low testosterone with low vitamin D levels. This makes sense, as vitamin D converts cholesterol (a precursor to testosterone) into testosterone. It’s not what the biotech industry wants to hear, because vitamin D is free, and Statins (cholesterol medication) is not.
Vitamin D has also been linked to increased muscle strength. The link is so strong that for decades Russian sporting federations were ‘Vitamin D doping’ their athletes by putting them under UV lamps for 30 minutes a day. This program created a statistically significant improvement in their track and field athletes’ performances, especially through the winter.
What I’m getting at here is that there is a balance to be struck. Too much sun can burn you, but too little direct sunlight can have long-term negative effects, and harm your athletic performance. Many studies offer the recommendation that people aim to get 15 minutes of direct, full body sunlight every day. That might be hard if you’re working full time, but it’s summer. At least try!