Note: This article is part 2 of a two-part series on hydration and sports drinks.
Consuming sports drinks can have both its advantages and disadvantages to athletes’ performance. According to Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, athletic performance may be enhanced by consuming beverages of varying combinations of carbohydrates (glucose, sucrose, fructose, and glucose polymers), electrolytes (sodium, potassium, and chloride) or other additives (caffeine and bicarbonate).
For instance, guzzling carbohydrate-laden sports drinks during prolonged endurance training runs or competitions improves athletic performance by delaying the body’s depletion of muscle and liver glycogen stores. Sustaining these important fuel sources prolongs the time to reach physical exhaustion during endurance events and could theoretically provide a winning margin in competitive races, where a 1% increase in performance may mean the difference between winning versus losing.
There is a fine line, however, when the optimal sugar concentration is exceeded. This “point of diminishing returns” is complicated further by the fact that optimal sugar content varies by individuals; some athletes can easily handle a drink with 7% sugar while others may develop diarrhea and muscle cramps.
Individual Reactions to Sports Drinks with Carbohydrates Differs
Ideally, athletes should compare several sports drinks and monitor their responses to each beverage. Drinking concentrations greater than 9% (sodas contain 10-12% sugar) is generally not recommended due to the possibility of intestinal problems.
Most sports drinks can be purchased as a powder and can then be diluted to the concentration an individual desires. I suggest giving each of your sports drinks at least a six-day tryout and be sure to consume the same drink during training that you do during competition.
You need at least 30 grams of carbohydrates within fluids for each hour of endurance exercise in order to improve your performance. So if you consume a sports drink with a sugar content of 6%, an ingestion rate of 25 ounces per hour would be required, according to the Sugar Nutrition Resource Centre.
Healthline advises athletes to also consume a high-carbohydrate pre-exercise meal about two and a half to four hours before an intense training session where you compare sports drinks. Eating prior to testing sports drinks can strongly influence your personal response to a beverage. Many endurance athletes find that low-concentration solutions are more beneficial during hot weather, high-sweat workouts for maximizing water absorption.
Active notes that the best type of carbohydrate within a sports drink is a matter of great controversy. Sucrose (table sugar) is converted to glucose and fructose (fruit sugar) before it is absorbed by the small intestine. Fructose will later be broken down into glucose by the liver after it enters the bloodstream. Fructose has been shown to only moderately disrupt insulin levels versus other sugars.
The drawbacks of fructose, unfortunately, are numerous. First, fructose is absorbed more slowly than glucose. Second, it may not be metabolized and released by the liver quick enough to provide fuel to the muscles during moderate-length exercise. Third, it cannot be used as an energy source for the brain (as glucose can), and it can contribute to cramping and diarrhea. Glucose polymers – synthesized to link glucose molecules together to reduce caloric density – have not yet proven to be advantageous over glucose or sucrose.
Sports Drinks with Carbohydrates Are Better Suited to Longer Events
Regardless of the type and percentage of carbohydrates you put in your sports drinks, do not expect an enormous advantage over water during sports events lasting less than 45-60 minutes. For events of a short duration – 30 minutes or less – consuming plain water is best.
Pleasantly flavored sweetened beverages may motivate athletes to consume larger quantities of fluid. However, they have only been shown to increase performance in events lasting longer than one hour, according to Healthy Eating Research.
Electrolytes and Drinks
Body fluid concentrations of electrolytes must be maintained within narrow limits, or nerve conduction and muscle contraction may be compromised. Although the main problem with dehydration during exercise is simply the loss of body water, sweat also contains small amounts of several minerals.
According to Nutrition Reviews, the concentration of electrolytes in sweat is roughly one-third that of the blood plasma, with sodium being the most abundant. The negligible losses through sweat of chloride, potassium and magnesium are of secondary importance to sodium.
Research has noted that the ionic concentration of sweat is extremely variable across athletes with heat-acclimatized endurance athletes tending to release less sodium in sweat, according to Sports Medicine. A trained athlete will develop a 10-15% greater plasma volume through conditioning, which enables more sweat to be released during exercise and also relatively fewer electrolytes.
Sodium and Caffeine in Sports Drinks
Runners Connect says that the combination of sodium and glucose (or sucrose) in sports drinks has been shown to increase fluid absorption from the small intestine to the blood. Consuming these types of sports drinks is preferable to ingesting a similar quantity of carbohydrate-only fluid or plain water, which tends to accumulate more in the gut and stimulates the urge to urinate – contributing less to overall hydration.
Also, sodium helps stimulate thirst and motivates the consumption. In addition, although sodium losses can be made up by consuming a well-balanced diet, it is the acute loss of sodium during a high-sweat workout rate that is crucial.
Furthermore, sodium can improve the taste of a beverage and make it more effective over the long haul. That effectiveness is especially important during multi-day competitions such as the Tour de France bicycle race and intense two-a-day football workouts.
Other additives in sports drinks include caffeine – a nervous system stimulant that is absorbed rapidly and reaches peak concentration in the blood about 60 minutes after ingestion. According to a Sports Medicine article, caffeine has been shown to extend endurance capacity by mobilizing free fatty acids from the adipose tissue into the bloodstream. The exercising muscle cells will then burn more fat when it is readily available and preserve the body’s carbohydrate stores.
For athletes, sparing carbohydrate reserves will certainly prolong time to exhaustion during prolonged exercise. However, consuming caffeine may have some detrimental side effects, including headaches, muscle tremors and an abnormal heartbeat. Additionally, fat metabolism predominates only during low-intensity exercise; carbohydrates are still the primary nutrient during high-intensity endeavors.
Adding Bicarbonate to a Beverage to Reduce Lactic Acid Production Is Not Helpful
According to Ideal Nutrition, some middle-distance athletes have ingested bicarbonate-containing drinks one to three hours prior to exercise to cause a drop in the body’s pH level and buffer lactic acid production. I do not suggest this strategy; high blood acid levels cause fatigue and artificially forcing the body into an alkaline state may result in rapid nausea and diarrhea.
Some Substances in Sports Drinks Are Banned by Sports-Governing Bodies
Most ergogenic aids within sports drinks may not enhance performance as much as previously thought, may possess harmful side effects and are banned by many sports-governing bodies. According to Addiction Resource, most sports-governing bodies have taken steps to control drug abuse in sports by banning:
- Any foreign substance taken into the body
- Any physiological substance in abnormal qualities
- Anything taken by an abnormal route of entry into the body with the purpose of gaining an artificial and unfair advantage
I have heard reports of phenomenal performances after athletes from underdeveloped countries consumed vitamin sports drinks or protein powders. However, it’s possible is that those sports drinks simply brought a nutritionally deficient athlete back to normal.
It’s Not Always Necessary to Buy Expensive Sports Drinks
Most recreational weekend warriors do not need to spend too much money on expensive sports drinks to be consumed when they are not exercising. The average American diet contains sufficient quantities of nutrients to replace those nutrients lost in sweat even during strenuous conditioning.
If you have reason to be concerned, consuming 16 ounces of V-8 juice a couple times a week will normally ensure sufficient electrolyte stores. European physiologists often joke about Americans having “the most expensive pee in the world” because excess electrolytes are simply excreted in the urine, according to OpEd News.
Some additives in popular foods and drinks provide no benefit other than the simple placebo effect. A placebo improves performance through the power of suggestion; if an athlete really believes it will work, it probably will.
Determining Which Sports Drinks Are Best for Your Athletic Performance
So which sports drinks are best for you? The first question to ask a sports drinks company that claims that its beverage has tremendous benefits is, “Which professional peer-reviewed sports science journal has published an investigation of your product?” Well-established journals have unbiased editorial boards who critically review research to eliminate deceptive and fraudulent claims by advertisers.
The final choice of your sports drinks will depend mainly on your body’s tolerance of it and the length of a sporting event. No commercially advertised sports drink has consistently proven to be superior, and the composition and concentration of whatever brand you choose needs individual experimentation during training to obtain optimal results during competition.