Learning How to Drink

Learning How to Drink

I spent most of last week in Phoenix, Arizona, at an event organized for members of the media by Skratch Labs. The lectures and Q&A sessions resulted in the closest I’ve come to feeling like someone inserted a memory stick directly into my brain in some years.

I don’t mind admitting that a significant portion of my bedrock assumptions about cycling have changed over the last two years. I won’t rehash everything that’s changed thanks to USADA, but in addition to that, there have been some big changes in tires and wheels, not to mention bicycles. On top of this pile, I now toss what I used to know, or thought I knew, about hydration and on-the-bike fueling.

I’d come to an uneasy detente with hydration, much the way I had with doping. I knew there was more to it than meets the eye, but the numbers didn’t add up. Specifically, drink makers have been marketing drinks that are supposed to be mixed at a 6 to 8-percent solution. Go any higher and you risked gastrointestinal distress, yet these same manufacturers are also marketing bars, chews and gels you’re meant to consume—also while on the bike.

The math didn’t work for me: drink mix + bar = need for extra bottle of water. The alternative was no better: drink mix + bar = GI distress. But I prefer having something with flavor, and because the marketing and sales staffers at some of these companies were clearly more concerned with selling me more product (or at least getting me to use more of their product), getting the truth from them was harder than getting a kiss from a nun.

Here’s where I have to credit Skratch Labs and Osmo Nutrition for taking the time to explain to me just how the body really works. Too often products are created that look great on the blackboard but don’t really work in real life. Here’s an example: Maltodextrin. Sure, I’ve seen some spectacular bonks due to people drinking water but not eating enough, but all the truly flashy fireworks (and I mean that almost literally) occurred when riders focused on drinks laden with maltodextrin. The sales pitch was always that a malto-sweetened drink would deliver huge numbers of calories in an easy-to-digest chain of glucose molecules. Then I crewed for a RAAM rider and watched her firehose a malto-laden drink into a ditch from her bike. What I didn’t understand until last week was that maltodextrin begins breaking down the moment it hits your mouth. It continues breaking down in your stomach, so by the time it reaches your small intestine, what you have is hundreds of calories of glucose and only water enough to help absorb about half of them. The rest goes in one of two directions. She didn’t have enough water to absorb all that sugar so her body ejected the rest. Not pretty.

And that’s just one of the minefields out there that I personally witnessed.

Even though Skratch Labs and Osmo Nutrition are incredibly competitive with each other, they’ve done a lot to give me something I can believe, and I’ve got two good reasons to believe. First, there’s the simple fact that I have found I ride better on both Skratch and Osmo than I do on anything else. Even more significant is that I felt better at the end of a long ride if I’d stuck to Skratch or Osmo. Second is the fact that these two companies are not only singing from the same song book, but they have been followed down this path by Clif, which is reformulating its drink mix to take the same approach to hydration. I’m accustomed to dealing with brands that try to convince me they make the only drink mix that could possibly work, that everyone else has it wrong, that without their mix, I’m destined to fall off my bike in the most epic bonk in the history of hypoglycemia. It gets old.

At root, what Osmo and Skratch Labs offer is a drink mix that keeps the mix of carbohydrate and electrolyte low, in the 2 to 3-percent range. As I’ve heard from both companies, the point is to include just enough sugar and salt to speed up gastric emptying.

Our sessions in Phoenix were led by Allen Lim. Yes, that Allen Lim; he of PowerTap, Floyd Landis, the Garmin team and even Lance Armstrong, he of the Ph.D. in exercise physiology. The guy at the root of the biological passport. Here’s how it was explained (in significant detail) to me: Plain water will move into your bloodstream by passing through the semi-permeable membrane. This process is slow, but it works. Use a sports drink with too strong a solution and water will be pulled into your small intestine in order to dilute the mix. The approach that Skratch Labs and Osmo have taken is based on studies that show that in that 2 to 3-percent solution range a roughly two-to-one mix of salt to sugar will cause something akin to floodgates to open, pulling water into your bloodstream far more quickly than can be accomplished by plain water moving across the semipermeable membrane.

It’s a huge relief to me to be able to write about something I’ve found success with and be able to show that I haven’t just chugged one brand’s Kool Aid.

That said, Skratch Labs will give you a half-dozen reasons why their product is distinctly different—and superior—to Osmo. Likewise, Osmo will swear that they are working from the latest science and that their stuff works even better. As a consumer, you could benefit from trying both, or you could conclude that because Skratch Labs offers a pineapple flavor, that’s your new go-to flavor. Believe me, I’m right there with you on that, though I’m becoming a fan of the raspberry as well.

Over the years, what I’ve learned is that I can drink just about anything and get through a three-hour ride. What Skratch Labs and Osmo help me to do is last longer so that my fifth hour is as strong as my third and as I pointed out earlier, ultimately finish a ride with more in the tank. So even though I’m no longer racing, on a weekend day, I need to get off the bike and be able to function. It’s not really okay for me to stagger from the garage, complain that I’m shredded, eat while bent over the sink, pass out on the couch in my kit and wake up as the sun is going down. Would it be too much to suggest that Skratch Labs improves domestic harmony?

Not at my home.

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  1. ScottyCycles62

    I love the SkratchLabs drink mix. No “gut rot” (And I have a sensitive stomach). I was buying it when it was still Secret Drink Mix. Can’t recommend it enough! I haven’t tried the Osmo yet.

  2. Noel

    I’m another one that’s been using the Skratch Labs mix since the “Secret Drink Mix” days. My wife and I had been using it before but really got hooked after a 100k charity ride where we were drinking organizer-supplied watery Gatorade all day. I love Gatorade, don’t get me wrong, but after about the 3rd bottle I was ready to shoot myself. Skratch, on the other hand, I can (and have) consumed constantly over 6-8 hour rides and had no trouble at all. I’m a fan and there’s always several bags of it around. I’m especially happy I can now buy it locally.

  3. Andrew

    Recent convert to Skratch. Anyone out there have any experience with their Hyper Hydration product? I think I fall into the description of people who might need it, but it seems like kind of a dramatic thing to try.

  4. Emil

    I am a recent convert to Osmo (from Scratch). Both work well for me, taste good, and are tolerated by my system, three important rules for a hydration drink.
    I have also had good luck with Osmo’s Recovery Drink which is not a cloying, heavy mix but similar to their hydration mix.
    I, too, appreciate both company’s approach to electrolyte and fluid education.

  5. Bennett Hug

    Been there, drank that. Skratch has had a profound effect on my training rides. It eases hunger pains at 3-4+ hours, doesn’t induce gut rot, comes in pineapple and can tackle the previous nights podium ceremonies. I haven’t tried Osmo but have tried “The Right Stuff” and countless others. I tried their original hyper hydration formula (not the new one) in hot summer months as a pre/post ride additive but it disappeared from shelves soon after. I also like the Daily Electrolyte mixed with some seltzer for change of pace off the bike , of course.

  6. Champs

    I’ll continue to favor one bottle mix, and a bigger bottle for water. Flavors are nice, but the pure stuff is a nice rinse for sweaty heads and grimy teeth alike.

  7. Peter Lin

    When I started riding, I used gatorade. On rides longer than 4 hours, my legs were basically jello. I switched to skratch 2 years back and noticed that going beyond 6 hours I feel fine. As long as I eat enough solid food to get the calories I need. There have been times when I started to cramp at Greylock Century and thought “dear god, how am I going to finish with legs cramping up?” The first time that happened, I drank 1 bottle of gatorade and 1 bottle of poweraid, didn’t help at all. The second time I cramped on grelock century, I drank a whole bottle of skratch and rested for 15min. Happily, 5 miles later the cramp was gone and my legs felt decent.

    I tend to sweat profusely and the extra salt really makes a difference for me. On really hot days for long rides, I bring salt stick caps for backup. Of the flavors from Skratch my favorite are lemon & lines and pineapple. Orange and raspberry are also good. For centuries and double centuries, the single serve packets are handy. I don’t work for skratch, but I’m definitely a fan of their product.

  8. Walter Nash

    I like both of their products. I have used GU Brew for several years w/o any issue. It is low sugar and uses maltodextrin. I do not understand the Osmo/Scratch position of drinking for hydration and eating for calories. If it is an excess of maltodextrin that causes the issues, why does it matter if you eat it in a gel or a chew, or drink it mixed with water?

    1. Author

      Walter: Malto isn’t bad. The issue with malto in drink mixes is that once you mix it to the solution level recommended, you don’t have enough water to deal with all the glucose once the malto is broken down, and these drinks, based on my understanding—which is based on what I’ve been taught by other, more knowledgeable people—are formulated with a belief that the malto won’t break down until after it passes through the semipermeable membrane, which isn’t the case. If the malto is in a gel or chew, you have the ability to keep drinking to dilute the sugar until your body is happy. That’s the difference.

      M Hottie: It’s true that Allen Lim does recommend going to real foods and moving away from gels and such. We spent some time talking about how as I’ve aged, my stomach has gotten hinky. It’s less willing to break down more complex foods at effort and as a result, if I’m going hard with a belly full of real food, my stomach will start talking back to me. Ahem. Which is why I don’t want people to get the idea that all malto is bad. That’s not what was communicated to me, but Lim’s philosophy is based on a bigger picture that does encourage the use of real food. I’ll get into that philosophy more in a coming post.

      Bikelink: Skratch Labs has an oral rehydration drink coming to deal with digestive diseases, a slightly different formulation than Pedialyte. And that drink will also be different from Skratch’s exercise mix, the daily mix and their hyper hydration mix. More on those to come.

      Full Monte: Nooooo! I don’t want to have my beer thirst satisfied without having had the beer!

      One other note: Some of you have mentioned that you will add sweeteners and/or salt to dial your drinks. After spending several days with Dr. Lim, I think I can report on his behalf that he would endorse your approach. Hydration is personal. We don’t all sweat at the same rate nor do we lose salt at the same rate, so adjusting your drink, whether it’s by diluting it or adding extra powder or just by adding a little salt, is a good practice and respects the scientific method.

  9. robert e sobon

    This past weekend, I made the decision t cut from my diet as much artificial additives and sweeteners and chemical additives as possible. Needless to say, this omits much if not everything I have been drinking. As such, I look forward to trying both of these products.

    I too am a very heavy sweat producer who suffers from cramps so bad at times I am like a baby. I am hopeful that these will be the answer.

    I also will be trying out some of the recipies for real food from both.

    Thank you very much.

  10. Aar

    Started with this approach on Secret Drink Mix and into Skratch, still had minor stomach upset issues. Tried Osmo as soon as it came out – best results ever!

  11. Andy G

    I’ve been using Skratch for 2 years now and love it. No GI distress and if you pair it with the ‘portables’ from their cookbooks you’ll have energy for miles and miles. Plus, when you order direct from them they always throw in some freebies and the occasional handwritten note. I can get behind a company that does little things like that.

    Seriously…buy The Feed Zone cookbook from Skratch Labs website. It rocks. The buffalo curry empanadas are fantastic and the rice cakes are the perfect mid-ride food.

  12. Aar

    Andrew: If your diet is extremely low sodium, the hyper hydration products will likely work well for you. On the other hand, if you regularly eat pre-prepared foods, the hyper hydration products could easily leave you feeling bloated and uncomfortable. They don’t work for me and two nutritionists told me that they are designed for dedicated racers who eat squeaky clean low sodium diets

  13. Vince

    Big fan of both Scratch and Osmo. Better yet is a mix of 1 tablespoon agave nectar, 1/4 teaspoon of Morton’s Lite salt in 20 oz of water. Almost exactly the same mix of electrolytes to sugar as Osmo but about 1/1000th of the price. Your own salt needs may vary, so adjust accordingly. And get your calories from real food: cookies, cake, bananas. You’re welcome:)

  14. Les B

    Ditto Andy G, word for word.

    I’ll have to try the Osmo, just to see, but I don’t see how it could be any better for me than the Skratch.

    My problem with cramps is on cold days when I will tend to not hydrate enough.

    BTW, for an almost instantaneous cure for cramps, keep a little salt packet from a cafeteria tucked away. When cramps hit, sprinkle salt under your tongue with a tiny bit of water. This mainlines the salt directly into your bloodstream, with no need to wait for it to be absorbed in the gut.

  15. owl

    I think both products are outstanding. For me, they both work (and taste) far better than any other on bike hydration mix I’ve tried. No stomach distress and a noticeable reduction in cramping. The thing is you can go straight to their websites and get the carb & sodium info per serving and make your own. Osmo is slightly lower in sodium and potassium and somewhat higher in sweetener than Skratch. They both contain citrate powders and ascorbic & citric acid. Get yourself a good kitchen scale and add agave nectar and salt by the gram along with some fresh squeezed citrus (or pineapple) to taste and voila – you’re a home PhD mixologist. I like to top mine off with 4-5oz of lemon-lime seltzer water. The slight tingle of low level carbonation keeps it refreshing. I hear some grousing about the cost of the mixes, but if I use organic agave nectar and organic citrus in my house mix the ounce cost climbs pretty darn close to Osmo and Skratch. I just like having complete control over what’s in my bottle. The mixes are great for travel, though.

  16. Andrew

    Aar- thanks. I don’t think my diet is especially low in sodium, although I don’t eat processed foods very often. I sweat a ton, though, and I think I am a high-sodium sweat producer. I’ve had a recurring problem with full body cramping on long, hot days, and I recently had it indoors during the “Tour of Sufferlandria”, doing a very hard 2 hour climbing workout the day after a 1 hour FTP test. It seemed to respond to a lot of miso soup the day after, so I’m thinking I just lose an unusual amount of salt.

  17. jorgensen

    One I will have to ask the nutritionist to review. When one is a diet and exercise only managed diabetic everything is significant.

  18. M Hottie

    I have used both products and have read several articles on both Dr Sims and Dr Lim. They were partners once (secret drink mix). The real challenge with using either Skratch or OSMO is the eating. you have to eat and that food has to come out of your pocket and not your bottle. And you don’t want to remove the maltodextrin from you bottle only to suck it down in a gel. But it does work. Sims and Lim are attempting to turn the sports nutrition world on its ear and while most of the companies are in denial, athletes are starting to listen.

  19. Bikelink

    Wow I’ve never seen so many comments here on the same side…but yeah me too. Switched to Scratch after spending time on Heed (too thick, taste felt wrong) and Cytomax (too sweet). Rather than halving the cytomax sugar, the added salt in Scratch seems to work. I also noticed that its combination is mirrored in Gatorade Endurance…so again hopefully we’re learning what works in general and isn’t product specific. As a physician this also reminds me of home made oral rehydration solution that saves lives from cholera…similar formula..add some salt and sugar to water and it saves lives (e.g., http://rehydrate.org/solutions/homemade.htm). Maybe someone else can do the researching or maths to determine if this matches the osmo/scratch solution % of glucose and salt. If so there you go for pennies (minus the pineapple flavor…or my favorite lemon lime).

  20. TominAlbany

    I’ve been watering down my gatorade for years. Now I know why!

    Will have to give those two a try and see if I like’em.

    Thanks, Padraig!

  21. Full Monte

    I did not know that. Semi-permeable membrane. Accelerated gastric emptying. Proper carb + electrolyte percentages.

    I’ve always just chugged water, suffered cotton-mouth, and perspired like barnyard full of pigs. Any time I’ve tried a sports drink, my already-sticky mouth will become coated in a film of flavored Elmer’s glue. My tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth as if it were lined with duct tape. And I have to remember not to touch my top and bottom lips together; they’ll stick shut like superglue.

    Color me convinced – I’m pretty sure, based on this article, I’ve been drinking wrong. I’ll try Skratch and Osmo, see if things don’t improve this summer. And this winter, on the trainer, since the streets here are lined with 6-foot snowbanks. Still. Again.

    One question: Wouldn’t it be cool if these companies created an IPA flavor?

  22. Carson

    If all you guys like the drink, (I do, too) take the next step and ditch energy bars. Check out Allen Lim’s books, Feedzone Cookbook and Feed Zone Portables. Food in your jersey pocket that tastes good – what a concept!

  23. Peter Lin

    @Andrew sounds like you sweat like I do. On a warm century ride (between 65-75F), my jersy is white from salt by mile 50. It took me two years to realize I wasn’t hydrating enough even though I was drinking 1 bottle of gatorade/hr. With Skratch, as long as I drink 1-1.5 bottles per hour, I can finish a century feeling fresh. On days hotter than 80F, I find having saltstick really helps. Last year’s greylock century was over 75F and I started to cramp around mile 65. I wasn’t drinking enough, and didn’t realize how warm it was. At the next rest stop I took 2 saltstick and drank 2 bottles of skratch. Happily I recovered and was able to finish with a personal best. Ever since switching to Skratch I won’t touch gatorade unless I’m desparate and it’s at the end of a ride.

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  25. Bob Kerner

    I’m on my second year of SL drink mix and cannot imagine using anything else. No more gut rot, gas, diarrhea that I used to experience with the supermarket sports drinks. I tried Osmo last summer during a shop ride because it was the only thing available. To my taste buds and stomach, it’s the same as SDM; I’d consider then interchangeable and would gladly use either depending on availability. I go so far as to carry the stuff in baggies on long organized rides rather than having to rely on other drink mixes, though this makes me look like I’m muling cocaine! Agree with comments above regarding the cook book. I’m in much better condition after a ride when I’ve consumed real food versus bars.

  26. Full Monte

    One of my cycling buddies, he with a masters in exercise physiology (and is a lawyer now) never drinks, never eats, and pedals like a diesel all day long. We’ve done 85 in hilly Wisconsin, and at the end, he does a few hill repeats just to make sure he’s wrung the legs out thoroughly.

    Seriously, a bottle of water lasts him three hours. Never touches a bar, Gu, gel, while on the bike.

    I’ve asked him why, as he’s a much more accomplished and experienced rider than I. He says his stomach gets “hinky” (same terminology as Padraig) if it’s even partially full.

    Same problem here. My body screams at me to drink more. To get something to eat. Yet when I do, I want to find some tree shade, climb off my bike, lie on my side and whimper tears of salt into the grass. Or projectile vomit. Whichever comes first.

    If I could figure out why this happens, and how to correct it, I’d be forever grateful.

  27. Les B

    Re comment from Bob Kerner
    I’ve also used SL out of a baggies, and along with standing the risk of being busted by the DEA, I find it’s just a PitA to deal with serving powder out of a baggie.

    SL is available in single-serving packets, but that’s more expensive than the already pricey product, so I use those only on challenging rides like Mulholland Challenge where time is of great essence.

    I have developed a method to put SL powder into a silicone rubber ice tray and expose it to moisture so that it solidifies into SL “rocks”. I also dispense these out of baggies, but this is a lot easier to deal with out on the road than powder from baggies.

  28. Laura

    @Full Monte, I feel your pain. It’s a delicate dance. SL has helped things here but at some point for me, food must go in. I simply cannot ride for long on just liquid calories. I have a hard time eating after a ride as well, especially on the longer rides. It’s the number one stress of riding for me.

    1. Author

      Here’s the thing about food based on my understanding from my time with Lim. If you attempt to get all your calories via liquid—that is, by drink—you are going to end up with GI distress. That’s why “because food.” I’m doing alright with gels and blocks, but I’m not racing grand tours and my aging stomach isn’t yet down with that mindset, though i do plan to try more things. Allen and Biju talked a lot about going with real food so you get that ongoing trickle of calories.

  29. robert e sobon

    Well, I just placed an order to both SL and Osmo (yikes!). I have ben using up my HEED and Gu. I am giving away my Gatorade powder. I made a batch of Allen Lim’s rice cakes and tomorrow will make a batch of Stacy Sim’s home made bars. Here’s hoping that my cramping will go away. It was pretty bad last evening 🙁

  30. PedalRon

    I won a box of coffee flavored gels at a race last year. Not only do I not like caffeine, I don’t like the taste of “coffee.” I told my wife she’ll be burying me with them.

    Some interesting stuff here. These days I’m mainly doing 2-3 hour rides and am just fine with water & some basic food. BUT…domestic harmony after the ride…you might have hooked me with that!

  31. robert e sobon

    I am just finishing my second week with using both products. And as such, not taking in the things I used to. i can say that i have not suffered from one cramp in the last two weeks and my gut has been very stable. I also must make mention of how attentive and supportive both companies are via social media. That is impressive.

    Now, if i could only get my sticky rice down for my rice cakes.

  32. Don

    I’ve been using “Vitalyte” for years. It comes in packets or jars, and is chemically almost identical to both Osmo and Skratch (among others, REI carries the packets, and can order the Jars).

    It’s been around for about 40 years, although previously it was called “E.R.G.” (for Electrolyte Replacement plus Glucose), and also called Gookinaid (for the designer, Bill Gookin,). It’s chemically close to identical to Osmo and Skratch, but the 40 years old gives Bill Gookin any discovery rights! It comes in 5 flavors!

    Personally, I will also try both Osmo and Skratch, being always interested in new products, and new tastes.


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