Sports drinks and runners often go hand in hand. But are there really any differences between sport drinks and is one brand of sport drink better than another?
First and foremost, I will go on the record that I am a big fan of sport drinks for marathon and half marathon training. They are a vital part of my training and the training of athletes I coach.
What is a sport drink?
In order to level-set this topic, I want to make sure everyone understands what a sport drink is. There is some occasional confusion around sport drinks so I think it is important to cover it for anyone new to the topic.
Wikopedia defines a sport drink as:
A sports drink beverage is designed to help athletes rehydrate when fluids are depleted after training or competition. Electrolyte replacement promotes proper rehydration, which is important in delaying the onset of fatigue during exercise. As the primary fuel utilized by exercising muscle, carbohydrates are important in maintaining exercise and sport performance.
I think that is a pretty good technical definition. I also view sport drinks as fuel. I think that is important because sports drinks (most anyways) are full of sugars and calories. This is why there are dozens of articles linking sport drinks to weight gain and recently to childhood obesity as mentioned in a recent article entitled, Study: Sports Drinks Are a Waste of Money, Contribute to Childhood Obesity.
Now the week this article came out, I received a few emails from several people asking my thoughts since I openly encourage the use of sports drinks as part of marathon and half marathon training. First and foremost, this article does not really apply to endurance athletes. The article is limited in nature as to its argument and should mostly be ignored by endurance athletes.
- Sport drink’s main ingredient is water. One of its main purposes is to rehydrate you when you run. Sure, water will do the exact same thing.
- Sports drinks are not for children. Its not that it is bad in small amounts, its just that sport drinks are high in calories and most kids just do not need it. Feeding a child a sports drink is like giving kids juice. Most juice has just as much ( and sometime actually more) sugar than sport drinks. Natural juices in limited quantities is fine. When my girls were younger, we gave them juice all the time because they loved it. However, once we realized how much sugars and calories are in juice, we cut their consumption way back. Many “juices” hardly have any authentic “fruit juice” even in them, but rather corn syrup and other non-nutritious ingredients like artificial flavorings, dyes, and so on.So unless a kid is exercising for more than two hours and is running the risk of getting seriously dehydrated, kids just do not need them. Sometime a sport drink can be used to rehydrate a child after a loss of fluids during sickness if suggested by a doctor. Pediatric Pedialyte is just another “type” of electrolyte replacement drink that is typically given to rehydrate children.
- Sports drink’s DO NOT improve performance. They DO prevent performance degradation that occurs from running out of carbohydrate (in the form of muscle, liver or blood glycogen) and from dehydration itself. Just a 2-3% level of dehydration can cause as much as a 10% degrade in performance.
- Sport drinks main purpose is to resupply the body with needed carbohydrates which eventually get converted into glycogen and ultimately ATP (adenosine tri-phosphate) which is the currency of muscular activity.
- Sport drinks contain electrolytes such as sodium and potassium that help replace those lost during heavy sweating. Electrolytes are important because they are what your cells, especially nerve, heart and muscle cells use to carry electrical impulses such as nerve impulses and muscle contractions between them and to other cells. Your body will work extremely hard to keep these electrolyte concentrations in your blood constant despite changes in your body. So during a marathon event or marathon training run you lose electrolytes in your sweat, particularly sodium and potassium. These electrolytes must be replaced to keep the electrolyte balance in your body constant. So, many sports drinks have sodium chloride or potassium chloride added to them.
If you drink only water, you lose these electrolytes and as you keep replacing water by drinking only additional water, you continue to dilute your sodium and potassium levels.
One risk of drinking too much water without replacing electrolytes is hyponatremia which is a metabolic condition in which there is not enough sodium in the body fluid outside the cells. This can lead to confusion, headache, fatigue, cramps, nausea, and even death. It is a very dangerous condition and one of the reasons why I feel sport drinks are so important. As long as you are replacing electrolytes your risk of hyponatremia is low because you are also replacing the sodium instead of diluting it.
So what is the best sport drink for runners?
So here is the answer you have been waiting for. I hope you didn’t just skip ahead to this section because the information above is something every marathon runner, half marathon runner, or endurance athlete needs to know.
The answer is, it depends.
I know that sounds like a cop-out answer, but it really does. Here are some things that should influence your decision:
- Look for a mix of 5-8% carbohydrate solution. Studies show that this is the most tolerable level for the digestive system and has been shown to have the fastest digestion rate. Note: Also avoid juices as they have a higher percentage and can cause stomach distress (eg. 9-10% mix). Olympic athletes and professional runners often have their own custom sport drink mix to best match their nutrition needs based on advanced lab testing. For the rest of us, most sport drinks with a 5-8% carbohydrate ratio is fine.
For sport drinks, look for a mix of 5-8% carb solution. Studies show that this is the most tolerable level for the digestive system.
- Look for a sport drink that your stomach tolerates. Some prefer Gatorade, some like Accelerade or Powerade. It comes down to what tastes good for you and what your body tolerates best.
- Don’t believe the marketing. Believe the science. Fancy marketing can make you believe that you need fancy recovery drinks, fancy pre-fueling drinks, and so on. The reality is that you really only need a convenient way to get electrolytes and carbohydrates into you body. This can be via natural foods (pretzels, cliff bars, bananas, etc) or via gels, sport beans, electrolyte fizzes, etc. It do not have to be a sport drink. Sporty drinks are just a form of convenience.
- Again, make sure that there is carbohydrates in the sport drink. “Diet” sport drinks do not provide any value other than electrolyte replacement and water. Ideally you want the fuel (carbohydrate) as well.
- Try to find out what sport drink your goal race provides (if any) and train with that brand. Keep in mind that many races have volunteers that inconsistently mix the drinks. Sometimes it is too strong, sometimes it is too weak. In the case of it being to strong, drink less and add water during your stop to dilute it. Too weak, drink a little extra. This usually happens when hydration stops fall behind and are struggling to keep up with the demand of runners, otherwise most do a great job. Regardless, always thank your volunteers! They are part of your support team.
- Also note, that a sport drink IS NOT the same as an energy drink (like Red Bull, 4 hour energy, etc). Energy drinks should NEVER, NEVER EVER, NEVER EVER EVER be used as part of a marathon training program, or any other athletic training or sports activity. I hope I wasn’t unclear. ;-) These are extremely high in caffeine and serve no valid nutritional purpose whatsoever, and in my opinion based on what I have read, can increase the chances of sudden cardiac death if caffeine is consumed in high enough doses. Just cut them out of your endurance nutrition plan.
So when it comes to determining what is the best sports drink for runners, experiment early on and fine tune your hydration and fueling plan based on what works for you. There is very little consistency between runners and what works for one does not always work for the other. General guidelines can help get you started in the right direction with your marathon training, but ultimately you need to find what works best for you.
If you have any comments, suggestions or tips, you can leave them below in the comments section or post them on our Facebook page to discuss the topic with others in the community.
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