Sports Drinks 101 – The basics of Sports Drinks
There are many choices when it comes to sports drinks. Different flavors, different brands, all with their claims of why theirs is the best choice for athletes. With so many choices on the market, how do you know which one will best suit your needs? The best way to start is with a basic knowledge of common ingredients found in most sports drinks, and the role they play in keeping you hydrated.
Triathletes need to utilize sports drinks because during training and racing, water alone is not enough to meet an athletes hydration requirements. On average, triathletes will lose approximately one liter of sweat per hour. Keep in mind, that this is an average, because sweat rates will vary from athlete to athlete, as will the composition of sweat lost. However, we can work with this average for general informational purposes.
What is sweat comprised of? Sweat contains water, calcium, magnesium, sodium, potassium and chloride. These are also known as elecrtrolytes. When we sweat, we not only lose water, but we lose valuable electrolytes as well. These electrolytes must be replaced in order to avoid dehydration and to maintain optimal performance. Some of these nutrients are more critical to replace than others, and we will focus on those.
The primary ingredient in sports drinks is water. It is first ingredient listed on any sports drink bottle. Keep in mind that sufficient fluid consumption is the most important thing to keep you moving forward during training and racing. Dehydration is not only detrimental to performance, but dehydration also causes slowing of gastric emptying, which further decreases performance.
In one way, shape or form, sugar is typically the next ingredient found in most sports drinks. It’s important to remember that a certain amount of sugar is not a bad thing when it comes to sports drinks. Working muscles require simple carbohydrates in order to stay fueled. Experienced triathletes understand that rapidly absorbed, simple sugars can result in extended endurance capacity and increased performance.
During exercise, training or racing, the body needs rapidly absorbed carbohydrates to fuel muscles, and not slowly digested complex carbs. With that said, two sugars are better than one. The stomach can process up to approximately 90 grams of carbohydrate per hour when a combination of two different simple sugars are consumed. This because the sugars are absorbed in the body by two different metabolic pathways. Studies have shown that a 2:1 ratio of glucose to fructose, or maltodextrin to fructose, or a combination of glucose, fructose and sucrose works best. With that said, look for a sports drink that contains approximately 14-15 grams of sugar per 8 ounces. Higher concentrations of sugar can either slow gastric emptying, or can pull water into the intestine in order to dilute the excess sugar, which will result in GI distress.
When athletes sweat, sodium of the electrolyte that is lost in significant enough quantities, that it must be replaced during endurance training an racing. Just as sweat rates vary from athlete to athlete, so does the sodium content of sweat. Whether or not you are acclimated to hot and humid environments can also have an impact on sweat loss and sodium content. When looking for a sports drink, athlete should look for one that contains 460-1000mg of sodium per liter, or 115-250 mg per 8 oz. There are several benefits to maintaining adequate sodium intake. Sodium will increase you desire to drink, helping you to stay hydrated. Other benefits of sodium include maintaining fluid balance and blood pressure. It also helps the rate at which the small intestine can absorb carbohydrates and also decreases urine output, which helps to prevent dehydration.
Another mineral that is also found in sports drinks is potassium. Potassium is a mineral that helps to maintain proper electrolyte balance in the body. When considering a sports drink, look for one that has 20-90mg per 8 oz.
As mentioned at the outset, there are additional vitamins an minerals that are lost in sweat. These include magnesium, calcium and chloride. However, these particular minerals are not lost in significant enough quantities that they need to be replaced during exercise.
So when considering a sports drink, make sure to focus on water, carbohydrate, sodium and potassium.
Brent Holderman is an ITCA certified triathlon coach, host of the Tri-Experience podcast, owner of Rockit Sports Online, and Ironman 70.3 triathlete.