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Sports drinks come in various forms – powder mixes, effervescent tablets, or ready-made fluids in a bottle – and contain an equally diverse range of ingredients for different athletic purposes. In this comprehensive guide, we’ll introduce the different types of sports drinks, the optimal times to consume them, their benefits, and how they can enhance your performance.

 

 

What are sports drinks? 

Sports drinks are designed to replenish fluids, electrolytes, or carbohydrates during physical activities, and many products do all three. They come in varied formats. Gatorade and Pocari Sweat (a favorite in Asia) are two popular sports drinks that are finished products in plastic bottles. Some are sold in tubs or packets of powder, and you have to mix them yourself. Other options include coin-size, dissolvable tablets that become effervescent drinks when added to fluids. 

Frankly speaking, when you pull back the curtain of marketing claims and fancy scientific terms, sports drinks are essentially just water with sugar and sodium added, the three essential ingredients/nutrients to keep you moving. Sports drinks are similar to energy gels, another popular sports fuel, but less concentrated and also help with hydration.

How are sports drinks processed in the human body?

When you consume a sports drink, the enzyme salivary amylase in your mouth immediately starts breaking down the simple sugars. Most of the fluid is then swallowed into the digestive tract, where carbohydrates are further broken down to enter the bloodstream as glucose from the small intestine.

Insulin is triggered and signals cells to use or store glucose. The entire process is fast, typically taking 5-15 minutes from mouth to muscles depending on the athlete. Factors such as ingredients, initial glycogen levels, exertion intensity, and hydration all affect the processing speed.

Many athletes experience an energy surge as soon as they taste the sports drink, even before their digestive systems get the chance to process the carbohydrates. The taste of sports drink sends a signal to the brain, priming the body for carbohydrate processing. Anticipating incoming fuel, the brain often triggers a performance boost in advance.

During exercise, blood is redirected from the stomach to the muscles and cooling mechanisms, compromising digestion and absorption. Give your digestive system and muscles enough time to fuel up. As carbohydrate absorption varies among individuals, remember to “practice” your fueling to fine-tune the right timing.

We recommend drinking regularly and definitely before your body sends out the “bonking very soon” alert. Prevention is better than cure.

How to choose sports drinks? 

We all have different lifestyles and diverse running abilities and experiences, so the sports drinks that work for some may not work for others. At Runivore, we aim to provide knowledge to help you select sports nutrition and design fueling strategies that meet your specific needs. Here are a few guidelines for making informed choices.

When choosing sports drinks, consider these three criteria:

  • Activity type
  • Nutrition facts
  • Flavor

 

Activity – What are you fueling for? 

How long and far do you plan to run? How hard do you plan to work? Are you running on trails in a remote area? Is it for a race or daily training? 

First and foremost, it’s important to have an estimate of how much fuel you need. Try these calculators and self-evaluations for calories, carbohydrates, sweat rate, and sweat concentration to get started.

With experience, you can fine-tune your fueling strategy based on how your body reacts under different conditions. And here are four rules of thumb:

  1. A fit runner can store up to 90-120 minutes worth of glycogen when running at marathon to near lactic threshold paces. If your activity is under 90 minutes, you may not need to refuel during exercise. At easier efforts, glycogen depletion is also slower.
  2. Consume 1 g of carbohydrate per kg of body weight per hour. For example, a 60 kg athlete should take 60 g of carbohydrates per hour. Recent studies suggest that the body can process up to 90-120 g of carbohydrates per hour. Gradually increasing your carbohydrate intake during training is recommended to handle a larger amount of the macro-nutrient. Just like your lungs, heart, and legs, your digestive system requires training as well. 
  3. Every 20-25 g of carbohydrates require 250 ml of water to process. 
  4. The sodium lost during running ranges from less than 200 mg per liter to over 1000 mg for those who sweat heavily. Sweat rates also vary widely, but the average adult sweat about 1 to 1.5 liter per hour during moderately intensive exercise. Obviously, variables such as humidity and temperature can alter your sweat rate. 

 

Nutrition facts- What are sports drinks made of, and what are the key nutrients?

Understanding the ingredients in your sports drink is crucial, especially if you have a sensitive stomach or food allergy.

Some sports drink products, such as Maurten Drink Mix 160, focus on replenishing glycogen stores and have higher carbohydrate concentrations. Brands like Nuun emphasize hydration and deliver electrolytes with minimal added sugar. Other drinks, such as 32GI’s Hydrate, provide a daily dose of key nutrients pre-run and contain micro-nutrients like vitamins and essential minerals that aren’t in the electrolyte category.

Let’s look at the key nutrients and ingredients found in sports drinks.

Carbohydrates

This macro-nutrient is the primary fuel for endurance athletes. They come in complex forms found in natural foods like whole grains, vegetables, and some fruits, as well as simple forms like glucose, fructose, maltodextrin, honey, and maple syrup. 

Simple carbohydrates are easier to process for mid-race fueling and provide a quicker mouth-to-muscle reaction. However, for daily nutrition and training, consuming healthier complex carbohydrates is recommended. 

There are two schools of thought regarding carbohydrate sources: 

Sugar is sugar. The source doesn’t matter because it’s metabolized into glycogen anyway.

Or 

Natural over synthetic. Although carbohydrates from natural and artificial sources are similar in chemical structures, their production processes differ. Your body may react less favorably to artificial ingredients. Therefore, natural nutrients are more bioavailable and less harmful.

As with most sports nutrition topics, expert opinions vary, and a slew of studies support both sides. In reality, individual preferences, lifestyle, and training goals often determine the most practical solution. Find what works for you.

Electrolytes

There are six main electrolytes – sodium, potassium, chloride, calcium, phosphate, and magnesium. Electrolytes dissolve in our blood, produce an electrical charge, and enable critical functions of the human body, such as electrical signaling, muscle contraction, nerve impulses, fluid balance via osmosis, and maintaining the blood’s acid-base balance.

Here are two articles on the electrolytes the human body loses the most during exercise – sodium and potassium.

Branded-chain amino acids (BCAA)

For events that go far and long (ultramarathons, ironman triathlon, or peak bagging), you might need more than just sugar and salt. After all, We deplete more than just carbohydrates and electrolytes during exercise.

L-Leucine, L-Valine, and L-Isoleucine, known as BCAA, are three of the nine essential amino acids, which can’t be produced by the human body and must come from food. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins and are critical to many bodily systems. BCAAs, in particular, are crucial components in the muscle repair process and delaying muscle fatigue during running.

Vitamins

These micro-nutrients govern a vast range of human body functions. Vitamins B complex and C are commonly included in sports drinks. 

Vitamin B complex, consisting of eight B vitamins, is responsible for metabolizing nutrients, red blood cell growth, energy levels, eyesight, brain function, digestion, nerve function, hormone and cholesterol production, and cardiovascular health, to name a few. Vitamin C protects cells and supports blood vessels, bones, cartilage health, etc. 

Caffeine

Caffeine has well-documented benefits, such as delaying muscle fatigue, improving nerve signal transmission, and enhancing mood and focus. However, it has side effects like gastrointestinal stress, frequent urination, insomnia, and substance dependence. 

If you regularly consume caffeine, the effects of caffeinated sports drinks may be negligible. To get a real performance boost on race day, we recommend cutting out caffeine for at least 3-5 days before a race.

 

Flavor – perhaps the most important of the three criteria

It doesn’t matter how nutritious and energy-packed a sports drink is if you don’t like the taste. This is the most subjective component of choosing a sports drink that’s right for you, but arguably the most critical.

The digestive tract begins with the mouth, meaning your taste buds play a part in how well your body will handle a sports drink and whether it may cause gastrointestinal issues

On race day, you will be going hard; a lot can happen when you are tested physically and mentally. So control what you can control and be kind to your taste buds and eliminate preventable discomforts such as fuel with subpar flavors.

We don’t have much advice regarding flavor since, as mentioned, it’s highly subjective. But hopefully, the following tips are helpful.

  • Start with your favorite foods. If you enjoy the tartness of citrus fruits, lemon- and orange-flavored sports drinks may work well for you.
  • Determine your consistency preference. Some sports drinks are effervescent, while others may be thicker. Try different options during workouts to see which agrees with you.
  • If you follow a clean diet, try sports drinks with natural ingredients. “Organic,” “all-natural,” and “from a natural source” usually indicate goodies made by Mother Nature. 

Honey Stinger Rapid Hydration Mango Melon mix

Should you take sports drinks every day? 

For most amateurs and weekend warriors, we don’t recommend using sports drinks every day. A daily bottle of sugary water is definitely not what anyone would call a healthy diet.

If your run is under 90 minutes, you probably don’t need to refuel mid-run. A carbohydrate-rich breakfast 1-2 hours before should be sufficient. 

Sports drinks are better reserved for big workouts, long efforts, and race days. However, if you have a high sweat rate and concentration, you can consider sports drinks low in carbohydrates and designed for replenishing electrolytes, especially in the scorching summer heat.

If you plan to use sports drinks in a race, pick a few workouts that simulate your event to practice fueling. If you are a marathoner, it might be a 30km progression run or a rust-busting half-marathon.

 

Pros and cons of sports drinks 

Let’s conclude with some tips and takeaways:

The pros:

  • Powder mixes allow customization. For example, you can make a more diluted mixture for long, easy efforts that won’t completely drain your stored carbohydrates.
  • Sports drink mixes are generally more palatable than energy gels due to the milder sweetness and watery concentration.
  • Mixing a less concentrated solution and taking smaller sips frequently can avoid large spikes and troughs in blood sugar levels, preventing gastrointestinal stress.
  • Refuel energy + hydrate – killing two birds with one stone.
  • Drink mixes are often sold in tubs. We mix our drinks in reusable flasks and bottles, making it an environment-friendly fuel option.

 

The cons:

  • Sports drinks can weigh you down during races. A typical energy gel weighs 30 g and provides 20 g of carbohydrates and 100 calories. To obtain the same amount of carbohydrates and calories as a gel, you would need to carry 250 g of sports drink.
  • According to conventional wisdom, endurance athletes should consume 1 g of carbohydrates per kg of body weight per hour. For a 60 kg athlete, that’s 60 g of carbohydrates each hour. This translates to 750 g of sports drink, which is quite heavy.
  • Suitable for workouts but not race days. Non-elite marathoners and half-marathoners don’t have the luxury of placing water bottles throughout the course, so drinks are likely, not practical for us weekend warriors. However, they can be a viable option for trail running and ultramarathons where hydration vests or fast packs are used.