What to Look For in the Best Sports Drinks
Note: CTS has a partnership with The Feed, which carries a variety of sports drinks and other sports nutrition products. CTS does not have any affiliation with a specific sports drink brand. That said, many sports drink brands base their formulations on the science presented here, because… it’s good science.
What is a sports drink?
A sports drink is essentially water with stuff dissolved in it. Some drinks have lots of different kinds of stuff dissolved in them, some of which just waste space. There is only so much room to dissolve solutes in a drink. As a result, drinks with fewer ingredients can use more room for important things like carbohydrate and sodium. The simplest drinks are best. They are easiest on the gut and facilitate the transport of sugar and electrolyte across the semipermeable membrane of the intestinal wall.
The concentration of sports drinks is important. Osmolality is the total molecular concentration of everything in the drink—carbohydrate, electrolyte, flavoring, additives—per unit volume. When you change osmolality, you change how the drink influences the overall mixture in your stomach. That, in turn, influences how that mixture makes it into the intestine. Scientists formulate sports drinks to optimize the absorption of carbohydrate, fluid, and electrolyte. If the osmolality is too high because of additives, it may slow gastric emptying. When osmolality is lower it may encourages faster gastric emptying, depending on what else you’re eating and drinking. A sports drink consumed on an empty stomach is formulated to get into the intestine quickly.
If you are designing a sports drink to have a relatively low osmolality but you want it to deliver moderate to high amounts of sodium and/or carbohydrate, you have to eliminate other stuff to make room. That’s a big part of the reason we’ve seen drink manufacturers shift to drinks with shorter ingredient lists.
Impact of flavor, electrolytes, and mouth feel
The ingredients, primarily sugar, sodium, potassium, and flavoring, are in the drink for good reason. Electrolytes and flavoring make you want to drink more frequently and consume more fluid each time. There’s actually a lot more to the way your sports drink tastes than marketing mumbo jumbo.
A lightly flavored drink is preferable to a stronger one. When you consume half a bottle in one slug, the stronger-tasting drink becomes overwhelming. As a consequence, you stop drinking. A drink that tastes almost watered down when you are at rest will taste just about right when you are exercising. This is why athletes have long diluted commercial sports drinks like original Gatorade. These days, many sports drinks are flavored to appeal to convenience store customers instead of athletes.
Even taste components and mouth feel are important. A slightly tart drink will encourage you to drink more than an overly sweet one, and citrus flavors also increase the drive to drink. It should be no surprise, then, that almost every drink company has some version of lemon-lime and/or orange in its product line. In addition to the flavor, a sports drink needs to clear the mouth well. When a drink leaves a film in your mouth, as is often the case with overly sweet drinks, it’s not only unpleasant, but you’re not likely to drink again soon.
Tip: Don’t dilute sports drinks
Rather than dilute sports drinks, it is better to find a drink with a lighter taste so you can comfortably consume it at full strength. The reason you don’t want to dilute heavily flavored commercial sports drinks isn’t really because doing so lowers the concentration of sugar in the drink but because it reduces the sodium concentration. Again, this is relative to all the other foods and fluids you are consuming, but if you are consuming a sports drink with the primary goal of staying hydrated—that is, maintaining proper fluid and electrolyte levels—then consuming a watered-down drink provides a lot of fluid and reduced sodium, which over time could contribute to inadequate sodium replenishment in relation to fluid intake.
What to look for in the best sports drinks
- Multiple sources of carbohydrate: Different sugar molecules take different pathways through the intestinal wall. When you consume only one type of sugar you are only utilizing one set of “gates”. By consuming multiple types of sugar you can utilize more gates simultaneously. This means you will transport carbohydrate into your bloodstream more quickly.
- Citrates: When you read the ingredient list, look for sodium citrate and potassium citrate rather than or in combination with sodium chloride and potassium chloride. Citrates are easier on the gut and help increase the absorption of fluid.
- Sufficient electrolytes: While there are low-sodium versions of sports drink, if you’re consuming a sports drink with the intent of enhancing hydration status you want to consume 500-700mg of electrolytes per hour. That doesn’t all need to come from your sports drink (foods supply sodium, too), but low-sodium sports drinks make it less likely you will consume sufficient electrolytes.
- Carbohydrate appropriate to your goals: There are high-carbohydrate (approx. 20+ grams/500ml bottle) and low-carbohydrate (approx. 20 grams or less/500ml bottle). The lower carbohydrate drinks are preferred if your primary goal is hydration. If you are participating in longer endurance events and want to consume a larger proportion of your carbohydrate energy via drinks, try the higher carbohydrate solutions. Be aware, however, that overconsumption of higher-carbohydrate drinks may increase your chances of gastric distress.
Water vs. sports drink during endurance training and competition
Athletes and coaches vigorously debate what to eat and drink during exercise. Among the topics is whether athletes should consume only plain water, both sports drink and water, or just sports drink. At CTS Cycling Camps, athletes start each ride with one bottle of plain water and one bottle of sports drink on the bike. At subsequent stops, athletes freely refill with either water or sports drink. Here’s how we advise athletes to decide what to put into their water bottles:
- Heat/humidity: Separating fluids from calories allows for greater flexibility with fluid consumption. In hot environments you want the ability to increase fluid intake. To do this, carry plain water in your bottles and consume calories and electrolytes from food in your pockets.
- Can you actually eat? During technically demanding or high intensity events, some athletes don’t feel they have time to reach for solid foods or gels. Sometimes they lack the skills to reach for and consume food, but they can access their water bottle. In those cases, sports drinks may be the best or only way for the athlete to consume fluids, electrolytes, and calories.
- Will you actually eat? At the other end of the spectrum from high intensity workouts and events, ultradistance athletes sometimes get tired of eating. They get flavor fatigue from consuming lots of the same foods over many hours. Sometimes they get texture fatigue, meaning the thought of crunchy or gummy foods becomes unappealing. Sports drinks – especially those with light flavor profiles – can offer a good alternative.
What are your thoughts on the keto, low carb energy powders?
I have had good results using them for my training. I try to eat low carb and these have helped me to stay within my goals.
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Could this not cause dehydration “if you are participating in longer endurance events and want to consume a larger proportion of your carbohydrate energy via drinks, try the higher carbohydrate solutions” – in that the water will be diverted away from say muscles via the veins into the gut to create the correct ph level (osmolality) for absorption? The goal I suppose is to ensure the drink remains isotonic.
Paddy, there are some physiologic principles that may help address what you are asking. You may be correct in that if you eat a lot, blood is diverted to the gut to absorb the food, and this could reduce the blood flow to exercising muscles. To clarify some of your other statements: First of all, if you ingest just carbohydrate (CHO) with water, once the CHO is taken up into cells and metabolized, the water ingested with the CHO is in your system as pure water. Secondly, osmolality and tonicity are NOT the same. CHO in solution has osmolality, but, as noted above, once the CHO is taken up into cells and metabolized, the net effect is that you have ingested pure water (no osmolality). Tonicity on the other hand represents the concentration of solutes that can cause water to come out of cells. It is usually made up of electrolytes. Most of the water lost with exercise is via sweat, and the tonicity of sweat is actually around only about ¼ of the tonicity of our body fluids (i.e. sweat is hypotonic in relation to normal body fluids). That is presumably why the electrolyte content of sports drinks is restricted to ensure that the tonicity of the drink is not too high. Ingesting isotonic fluids to replace the hypotonic fluid lost in sweat would result in plasma and body fluids becoming hypERtonic (higher than normal tonicity), causing water shifts out of cells and making the athlete feel worse. The approximate concentration in sweat of substances that contribute to tonicity is around 35 millimoles per litre (about half of which is from sodium (~ 402 mg of sodium per litre). Looking at the content of Nuun SPORT Hydration tablets, and dissolving it into the recommended 475 ml of water (final volume roughly 500 ml) yields a tonicity of around 37.5 millimoles/litre, VERY close to the tonicity of sweat. Other hydration drinks have less sodium, and are relatively hypotonic (less concentrated) than sweat. Thirdly, pH level and osmolality are NOT the same thing, and the mechanisms that regulate pH and osmolality in the body are not the same. Hope this helps.
What about those who claim you should NEVER use simple sugars, even in sports drinks, only “complex carbs”? Any real rational to that?
I always go with one plain water bottle and one with Nuun Performance when I am on bike rides over 2 hours/over 75 degrees. Otherwise just water. I ensure both are gone every 2 hours. The last hour/cooling down I had an extra tab to my water.
I have no idea why I came up with this? However, I find it works and the extra sweet taste right at the end triggers something that makes me want to drink. When the water is plain, I find myself not drinking as much. Worse yet, probably moving towards the ole recovery beer at the finish line with others. Nuun seems to stave off the need for the recovery beer. Try it, perhaps it will work for you too!
The difference for athletes is in how fast they are absorbed and processed. Simple sugars go faster than complex carbs. So it depends on your needs. IME, a mixture works best, but everybody’s experience and needs are different.
Yeah, plain water is only good for short rides. After that, it starts just sloshing around in my gut.
Many sports drinks are adding non nutritive sources of sweeteners, like Stevia. I had a “discussion” with HEED at Interbike. My feeling, based on the research, is that these actually make you crave sugar and may be associated with other rare side effects. Yet many are including them in their drinks and electrolyte supplements. Not Bonk Breaker! What are your feelings.
just watch for Mag Citrate of longer events… unless want to clean out bowels. Too many companies use fructose which in long or hot events since hows its digested can cause GI issues in many not all. Most people add too much CHO per bottle so its good to see your rec on it. I go with 4-8% solution depending on temps. Also need to keep in mind starting and finishing temps
That’s good, Matt. From all the data I’ve read, the optimum concentration is 6% to 8% of a 2:1 ratio of sucrose and glucose. I also add electrolyte tablets for the flavor. I get the sugars from Amazon. A LOT cheaper than Gatorade.