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.
Last week I attended a mini media camp. It was three days of riding Cervelo bikes and Easton wheels in Sonoma County. All my work should be this hard. As it happened, the get together also included an introduction to a new nutrition company, Osmo Nutrition. For those of you who tuned into Lance Armstrong’s un-retirement, you may have caught a story about Tex swallowing itty-bitty telemetric thermometers so they could track his core temperature as he exercised. Well the Ph.D. who tracked that data—Stacy Sims—has come up with a whole new plan for hydration, the results of which are Osmo.
Osmo is a four-drink system. First is PreLoad Hydration. You drink that the night before a big day and the morning of a big day. Big day being any ride with heat and intensity when you don’t want to suck. Second is Active Hydration. You drink that during exercise; it is not a carb delivery system. Osmo works with the adage: Food in the pocket, hydration in the bottle. Third is Acute Recovery. You drink it in the half-hour window immediately following exercise to stop the catabolic effects of exercise and begin the repair and adaptation response. Fourth is GoodNight Recovery. You drink it before bed to aid recovery and sleep during hard training blocks and/or stage races.
My understanding is that Active Hydration and Acute Recovery are meant to be used any time you ride. PreLoad Hydration and GoodNight Recovery are when you need the big guns; even for racers you may only need them a couple of times in a month.
Some years back, at another publication, I was assigned the role of guinea pig. Every new nutrition device that came down the pike entered my system. Some of the results were not pretty. Some of them caused me to dispense methane with the frequency a foghorn sounds on the Northern California coast. But here’s the thing: Some of you may remember a before/during/after system of nutrition products with both drinks and bars called SmartFUEL. They went out of business and a few years went by without its help. Five years later I looked back and realized that SmartFUEL made a notable difference in my performance. I was unpleasant to be around while I was on that stuff. but during the years I raced on it, I was the fittest I ever was.
Which is to say, it was pretty good, but with that much methane off-gassing, something was still amiss.
Osmo has a series of videos on their web site and I’ve got to say that Sims not only makes a compelling case for why their products will work for you and me, there are even little nuggets of nutritional wisdom that have affected how I look at my own exercise nutrition. Getting me to re-think how I take care of myself is no small feat. Hell, even getting me to examine my nutritional needs is impressive. Most pitches I’m suggested to can simply be boiled down to: Use this instead!
Without months of use and diligent tracking of changes in fitness it can really be difficult to report—as a reviewer—that one nutrition product is superior to another. Actually, any claim to that effect ought to be regarded with great suspicion. I know a two, maybe three journalists in the industry who have a great enough command of their fitness that they could claim to have done the work necessary to be objectively convinced one product is superior to another. I’m not among them.
So I went into this thinking, “Cool, I’ll try these new drink mixes and I won’t have to use any of the expensive stuff I brought.”
That wasn’t the outcome I experienced.
Stacy Sims, in a series of videos on the Osmo website makes the case for Osmo’s products not by making broad claims of “science shows … blah, blah, blah.” She refers repeatedly to studies that have appeared in peer-reviewed journals, which for those who slept through the Intelligent Design wars are where that pseudo science fails to make any headway.
Okay, now a little back story. Between November and March I got hammered with a series of colds. Six, in fact; every one of which lasted longer than a week. It wiped out anything akin to an aerobic engine within me. I made some mention of it in other posts and did some bitching in social media. So I’ve been riding nothing but base miles since April. I went into these three days of riding knowing that I needed to conserve whenever possible and let go anyone who was feeling frisky. Day one was 31 miles and 2500 feet of climbing. Day two was 46 miles and 4300 feet of climbing—the famous Geysers loop. Day three is what convinced me that Osmo is to my system was 91 octane gas is to my car.
Day three is a day that should have gotten sideways almost from the start. Those first two days were just hard enough that I should have been in the hole on waking on day three. Back when I was racing, I could do a hard Saturday and Sunday followed by our local holiday ride on Memorial or Labor Day and still have something in the tank for those. For a good five years now, if I go hard both Saturday and Sunday, I’ve got nothing at all for Monday. I just haven’t been able to rally.
So when I woke on day three and my legs weren’t just okay, but good, I was impressed. The ride we did began in Occidental and took in a portion of stage one of the Tour of California, including the Fort Ross and Coleman Valley climbs. As I dropped into the descent back to Occidental I was overtaken by the United Healthcare cycling team and was rather pleased that they didn’t dump me on the descent, but I digress. We rolled back into Occidental, dropped off a couple of riders and then pushed on for Geyserville and the climb up Sweetwater Springs.
Sweetwater Springs is a climb known to locals and almost no one else. Which may or may not be good. It’s about 2.5 miles and pitches at times approach 20 percent. Trust, me, the sections that are 11 percent feel like a pretty normal climb. I was in a 39×25 and suffered like the whole of a chain gang. But that wasn’t our last obstacle. The driveway up to our lodgings was a bit more than a half mile and while the whole thing was difficult, it’s the section at 28 percent that reduced me to a cadence of 12.
I should note that we had a support vehicle supporting us and I drank six bottles during the course of the 6.5-hour ride. We returned back with 89 miles and 7500 feet of climbing. At the end of the ride I was tired, but not shattered. And the next morning, under ordinary circumstances, I should have risen only with great effort, but instead I felt okay. Tired, but good enough to head out for a recovery ride.
I’m convinced the stuff made a difference in my riding. And not just a bit of a difference, but a truly notable difference.
Now, this stuff doesn’t come cheap. Osmo products come in resealable bags. PreLoad and Active go for $24.99 (ten and twenty servings respectively) while Acute and GoodNight go for $39.99 (ten and eight servings respectively). Active and Acute are the two products you are likely to use most often and are arguably the best overall value of the bunch. The taste in all of them is light and they offer a couple of flavors in most cases. Mixing Acute with milk or almond milk makes for a very refreshing post-ride drink. PreLoad is the one, due to the amount of sodium in it that is the least exciting to drink, but it’s still not as stomach turning as, say, wheatgrass.
Whether you believe me or not, you might drop by the Osmo site and give them a few minutes. They produced a set of videos about their products in which Sims explains the science behind each of the drinks. They are entertaining to watch and surprising enough in their content that you may learn a thing or two. Check them out here.