It’s easy to envy Allen Lim. He’s been everywhere important in the bike world. He’s worked with not only the best teams, but the best riders. He has most journalists eating out of his hand, literally. And his best advice seems to be of the no-nonsense kind. Why isn’t someone with scads of power doing better at bike races? ‘It’s that you’re a shitty bike racer,’ he once told Velo.
Lim is mostly off the road these days, but he’s coaching top cyclists and running a business called Skratch Labs. Skratch Labs drink mixes, both their Exercise Hydration Mix and Everyday Hydration Mix, follow this kind of format. They’ve got a lot of thinking behind them but essentially they’re the simple execution of a simple idea. Make simple drink mixes that have natural ingredients and are easy to digest. Easy, right?
We’ve all been to this place before. It’s 90-degrees out and a little more than halfway into what should be a four-hour ride. You ran out of the home-mixed fluids in your bottle five miles ago, your throat is dry, you can’t eat, and you want something that satisfies. So when that first convenience store appears, slam on the brakes, go in and get a liter of Gatorade, possibly more. Drink half a liter standing still, then fill the bottles and go.
A few miles down the road, you’re still thirsty and the beverage of the Florida Gators is warming up and sticky and not terribly enjoyable, but it has electrolytes and calories and is liquid so you drink away. You get a terrible feeling in your stomach, what some call ‘gut rot.’ There doesn’t seem to be a choice; it just seems to be a side effect of riding too far or too hard in weather that’s too hot.
It’s easy to pick on the drink that created the category, but it’s not the only one it happens with. We think that just about everyone has had this experience with at least one brand of sports drink, if not several.
Lim was trying to make something that didn’t do the above for his charges on the pro teams he worked with. Someone once told us of Lim, “he has a Ph.D., but he’s mixing water bottles.” Now we know why.
Here’s an explanation from the man himself.
To us, this feels a little too simple to explain how a complex system like the body works, especially since human bodies vary. But this is one of the ways Lim shines. The word you need to know is osmolality. It’s the concentration of chemicals (think electrolytes) in the blood. According to the NIH, “Normal values range from 275 to 295 milliosmoles per kilogram.” It gets higher when you’re dehydrated. If the concentration of chemical particles in what you’re drinking is greater than that of your blood, then you’ll get further dehydrated because it will draw water away from the rest of your body. Osmosis is a concept most are familiar with and how the body achieves equilibrium. This is that heavy feeling your stomach can get. If the solution you’re drinking has a lower osmolality, then your body can absorb the liquid more easily and quickly with less distress.
So, Lim was trying to make a drink that had lower osmolality and still delivered the electrolytes people need. 280 was the goal, so the concentration would mimic what the body already has, but yet slightly lower osmolality, making it easier to get absorbed by the body. To get it down to this number, he cut calories and increased electrolytes compared to most sports drinks. Here’s his much longer explanation.
Cut calories from your sports drink. This, in some circles, is controversial. Some people believe it’s easiest to get calories through liquid. Lim believes in separating nutrition from hydration. Extending this idea to other on-bike fuels, he thinks gels are bad. “Gels are one of the worst types of foods you can consume. I tell athletes to never use gels unless they are absolutely desperate, it is cold out and they are not dehydrated, or if it’s in the last hour of a race where they can find a toilet to relieve themselves sooner than later.” As for the problem of eating on a hot day, “Generally speaking, in the heat, there’s competition for blood to deliver oxygen, cool, and also digest food. So there’s definitely more of a burden in the heat. That being said, that only makes highly concentrated gels and fluids even harder to absorb. So while it may also be harder to digest regular food, it’s even harder to absorb highly concentrated fluids and gels.”
The Exercise mix works for us. Riding hard in hot weather has always presented challenges. We’ve tried lots of mixes over the years and have begun preferring ones with higher electrolyte content (saltier rather than sweeter) for the past few. It’s easy to drink anything at the start of a ride when you’re hydrated and the bottles are cold. A few hours in, when you’re getting bottles at a feed or stopping at a store, you start to learn what works for your body.
The taste, we tried Pineapple, is light. More like slightly salty flavored water than a syrupy drink. The pineapple flavor is present but more like a strong hint then pineapple juice. It goes down well when cold or warm. And it was hard for us to get tired of drinking it, another good sign. Maybe we’ve drunk the KoolAid, but having switched from Skratch Labs to store-bought mixes mid ride, we can feel the difference, and have resolved to cut the drinks with water on our mid-ride fuel breaks, even if that means the electrolyte balance is off—better than water we figure.
It’s also worth noting that we went with the one-pound sack rather than the single sticks. With the sticks you can shove them in your pocket for mid-ride refueling, but we prefer having them in our race bag to make assembling drinks at races easier.
With the sealed sack, you need a container to put the opened mix in. Lim is opposed to waste and thus uses minimal packaging and leaves it up to you to find a home for the powders. You could put it in a Ziploc bag, you could put it in their Flip Lock Tin, or anything else. We put the exercise mix in a Chinese take-out soup container. Light, reusable, seals well. To remember what was inside, we peeled the information sticker off the sack and stuck it on the container.
We tried Skratch Labs Everyday Hydration Mix as well. The basic idea behind it makes sense to us. A mix that has some salt, magnesium, potassium, and a little flavor for when we’re not exercising. Considering that we can consume three liters of water a day at home, the idea of not diluting our blood too much, not tickling the edge of hyponatremia, seems wise. We don’t know how hard it is to get there, but we’d rather not find out the hard way. Besides, we’ve already been using Nuun, Zym, Hammer Endurolytes Fizz, etc. for the same idea—in our case, it’s having a little flavor in water so as not to get bored.
For us, there wasn’t quite enough flavor to the Everyday. We could taste the electrolytes and get the faintest whiff of flavor, but couldn’t place it. The serving size is 40 calories per 500ml. When we upped the serving size by 50%, up to 60 calories per 500ml, we could tell that the flavor we had was Lemons and Limes. Interestingly, the others come across with a stronger flavor and with fewer calories, but also not as much in the way of electrolytes. Though the others use artificial sweeteners to pump up the taste and reduce the calories. As a point of comparison, an eight-ounce glass of orange juice has 112 calories, so 500ml worth is closer to 130.
Another great touch of Skratch labs is that a single scoop equals a single serving. And that single scoop is all you need to fill a regular water bottle. More drink mix companies should follow this lead.
The only thing we had a problem with was the Flip Lock Tin. It might have been the particular one we got, but our jar doesn’t seem to seal as well as our used soup container. The result is that the mix in the tin hardened to the point that we need to use a knife to break it up before scooping. It could also be our moderately humid location. Lim has seen few problems with the tin in arid climes, but it doesn’t seal well enough for humidity. Look for a locking glass jar with a thick rubber seal to be coming from Skratch Labs, soon.
If nothing else, Skratch has changed our thinking on hydration. Definitely for harder rides and hot weather, we’re going with lighter drinks in the future.