Summer is just around the corner and that means hot temperatures are peering around the bend too. For cyclists, that means it’s time to consider ways to manage performance and even safety when things start to heat up. One surprising thing that may help you adjust: mint.
Mint leaves contain a compound called menthol, which activates cold receptors in the mouth and airways creating a sensation of coolness. This sensation of coolness has the potential to provide an ergogenic (or performance-enhancing) aid to cyclists riding in hot temperatures.
How does mint help with performance in the heat?
In a position paper published in 2020, Sports Dietitians of Australia recommend beverages with menthol to athletes looking to perform their best in the heat. Katie Kissane, M.S., R.D., founder of Fuel 2 Run says,“based on the research, the evidence suggests that consuming mint as an energy gel or as part of a drink or sports nutrition beverage may help improve performance and can provide a cooling sensation which could be beneficial when training in the heat, as a means to improve heat tolerance.”
Researchers who published a study in the peer-reviewed journal PLoS One in 2014, investigated whether the temperature of a beverage or the flavor of the beverage had effects on performance in the heat. Twelve trained male cyclists/triathletes performed six 20-kilometer time trials in a tropical environment (87 degrees Fahrenheit and 78 percent humidity). Before and during each time trial, the participants drank either an ice slushy with menthol, an ice slushy without menthol, just below room temperature water with menthol, or just below room temperature water without menthol.
Researchers found that the participants performed best with an ice slushy with menthol, and that an ice slushy without menthol was better than the beverage served at neutral temperature with menthol. They attributed these positive effects to the cooling sensation of menthol and cold beverages.
Interestingly, there were no differences in heart rate or core temperature between the neutral temperature or cold beverage tests. This shows that the sensory effect of the menthol and cold temperature may be what enhances performance, rather than the cold beverage actually cooling down the body. So while menthol and mint-flavored foods and sports nutrition products may not be doing anything physiologically to improve performance, the sensation of feeling cool may be enough to keep you riding strong.
Drinking cold beverages that contain menthol during a ride or even swishing around a minty beverage may improve performance by reducing perceived exertion, making rides feel easier while maintaining the same effort. The proposed mechanisms of action for menthol beverages on performance include improved feeling of thermal comfort, reduced restriction of breathing during exercise (athletes have an easier time breathing during high exertion), and stimulating mental alertness. Studies show the use of commercially available products, such as sports drinks, to be effective for improving performance in the heat.
Are there any downsides to drinking mint beverages during a ride?
Before you go and try to make your own menthol beverage, know that there is a risk of ingesting too much menthol at one time. Side effects can include burning, irritation, and pain in the mouth and esophagus. Menthol has been shown to cause fatality in large quantities, exceeding 50 milligrams per kilogram body weight. For this reason, The Sports Dietitians of Australia recommend using commercially available products rather than trying to make your own menthol beverage.
While the argument for drinking a cold beverage with menthol to enhance performance exists, that doesn’t mean it is recommended for every athlete in every scenario. The studies conducted which investigate mint’s effect on performance generally have small sample sizes, are short term, and are not compared to sports drinks with other flavors. (Also, one study published in October 2021 in European Journal of Sport Science, found that menthol actually did not improve time to exhaustion—though this study didn’t focus on menthol being used in the heat, specifically.)
One main concern with mint-flavored sports drinks is that athletes may not enjoy the flavor and therefore won’t take in the fuel or hydration they need to perform.
At the end of the day, taking in fluid, electrolytes, and carbohydrates is the main priority for all endurance exercise over 60 minutes. But as long as you don’t go overboard on consumption, there’s no harm in trying a minty beverage during a ride and seeing if you enjoy it enough to get the fuel you need, as well as gain the cooling benefits.
Anything I should know before trying a mint beverage during a ride?
When shopping for menthol/mint beverages to drink during rides, just make sure the product has those electrolytes (and some carbohydrates if you’re riding for over an hour).
The positive effects of menthol do not negate the need for replacing electrolytes lost from sweat during hot rides. Products such as Just Water Infused mint flavor may be enjoyable before or after rides, but will not be as effective for meeting hydration needs as something like Cocoa Elite’s Elite Endurance sports drink, which contains 36 grams of carbohydrate per serving and 500 milligrams of sodium, or NOOMA Organic Sports Drink, which sells a chocolate mint-flavored beverage, and contains electrolytes and some carbohydrates (7 grams) to keep you fueled on your ride.
To maximize the benefits of the cooling effects of menthol, drink 8 ounces of the menthol beverage at a cold temperature every 15 to 20 minutes during a ride. Another smart tip: Make menthol beverage ice cubes, so when you’re out on a hot ride, they melt into the rest of the drink in your bottle.
Kissane says she might not recommend minty drinks for all cyclists, “but for athletes who have a hard time training in the heat and enjoy the flavor of mint, it would definitely be worth experimenting with on a ride.”
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