Posted on August 01, 2018

Geraint Thomas recently became the first Welshman to win the Tour de France, winning with a one minute 51 second advantage over Tom Dumoulin of the Netherlands after the final individual time trial stage. History is made in minutes during such races and there are many factors separating first place from second, including how racers prepare for different weather conditions.

This summer, professional male and female cyclists will participate in almost 30 international cycling events happening across the globe. This will include grand prix competitions, world tours and championships in countries as diverse as Spain, England, Poland, Norway, France, Austria, Netherlands, China, and Turkey. Aspetar, the orthopaedic and sports medicine hospital in Qatar, helps athletes achieve optimum performance by studying such races and distributing ground-breaking statistics and research. Based on its latest research findings, Aspetar has revealed that cyclists reach higher temperatures during individual time trials as compared to road races. The best way to prepare for this eventuality is to heat acclimatise.

Some degrees of heat acclimatisation are obtained by regular training, even in cooler conditions. However, given the visible changes the body undergoes in different temperatures, including increased sweat rate, a decreased heart rate, a better retention of electrolytes, and a decreased body core temperature, the most effective method for increasing performance and minimising the risk of heat illness is to train in conditions that are similar to the upcoming competition. Dr. Sebastien Racinais, Research Scientist and Head of Athlete Health and Performance at Aspetar, illustrates why the core body temperature of a rider increases more during individual time trials, saying: “Even when the time trial lasted for less than 50 minutes and the road race for more than three hours, the body temperature in the time trial was higher because the higher the power output, the higher the heat production.”

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Speaking of the 2016 UCI Road World Championship in Doha, for which Aspetar provided medical cover as the official medical partner, Dr. Sebastien Racinais said: “We had a specific team studying how heat affects athlete performance. They provided research and medical support as part of the UCI expert panel, which is responsible for safety and racing in extreme environments. “Aspetar was the first to monitor body temperature during a World Championship in Doha, where temperatures can reach 44°C, and we used cutting-edge technology. Riders swallowed a miniature ingestible pill that weighs only 1.7 grams. After the race, we go to the rider with a receiver the same size as a smartphone to download all of the body temperature data and analyse it.”

Do’s and Dont’s for professional and recreational cyclists

Based on its research into elite-level cycling, Aspetar experts say that there are some do’s and dont’s for professional and recreational cyclists alike when competing or training in the heat:

  • Races of shorter duration (under 20 min) are less affected by conditions of high heat and/or humidity as they may not be long enough to increase whole-bo­dy temperature to levels that can affect performance. However, a very long and intense warm-up can influence performance during a subsequent event.
  • If it is not possible to train in the same environment as the upcoming competition, most adaptations can be acquired by artificially simulating heat or minimi­sing heat dissipation (e.g. no cooling fan) during indoor training.
  • Suf­ficient hydration prior to and during exercise and during recove­ry is important for athletes of all levels to ensure their safety in the heat. Exercising in the heat causes heavy sweating, which can cause dehydration if fluids are not sufficiently replaced.
  • Simple techniques such as measuring body weight before and after exercise or evaluating urine colour can help athletes assess fluid loss through swea­ting to estimate their hydration needs.
  • During exercise, it is recommended that personalised hydration regimes based on sweat rate are developed for each athlete to prevent body mass losses excee­ding 2-3%. Hydration regimes should also never result in over-hydration.
  • Sodium (salt) supplementation during exercise is recommended for heavy and ‘salty’ sweaters who may deliberately increase sodium intake prior to and following hot-weather training and racing.
  • During exercise lasting longer than an hour, athletes should add electrolyte tablets or the equivalent of a pinch of salt to water, especially for athletes experiencing muscle cramping. It is also advi­sable to consume 30–60 grams/hour of carbohydrates for exercise lasting lon­ger than one hour and up to 90 grams/hour for events lasting over 2.5 hours.
  • Recovery drinks should include sodium, carbohydrates and protein to optimise recovery. The preferred method of rehydration is through consumption of fluids with foods, including salty food.


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Countermeasures before racing or cycling in the heat

  • It is advisable to minimise unnecessary heat exposure and heat gain. Cyclists should therefore warm-up in the shade prior to racing if possible. They might also consider external (ice-vests, cold towels, or fanning) and internal (cold fluid or ice slurry ingestion) precooling methods.
  • Cyclists should protect their eyes by wearing UV-ray blocking sun-glasses with a dark tint and their skin by using non-greasy sun-screen. Lightly coloured clothing can also minimise the effect of the sun’s radiation, but clothing should not impair sweat evaporation.
  • It is recommended that young and female athletes pay particular attention to their hydration status and heat accli­matisation strategy. This is because females have lower sweat rates than males during high intensity exercise in the heat and may reach greater core temperatures in a shorter time period, putting them at greater risk of developing heat illness.