It’s no secret that sports drinks and running go hand in hand. I’m often asked if there really are any differences between sports drinks and whether one brand of sports drink is better than another.
First and foremost, let me go on record stating that I’m a big fan of sports drinks for marathon and half marathon training. They’re a vital part of both my training and the training of athletes I coach.
What Are Sports Drinks?
Before we really get going, I want to make sure everyone understands what a sports drink is. Wikipedia
defines a sports drink
A beverage 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’s a pretty good technical definition. Sometimes, people shy away from sports drinks because they tend to be loaded with sugars and calories. This is also why there are dozens of articles linking sports drinks to weight gain and (recently) to childhood obesity. But if you consider sports drinks fuel like I do, it’s easier to understand their necessity to running.
- Sports drinks are mainly water.
One of the key purposes of sports drinks are to re-hydrate you when you run. Sure, water will do the exact same thing, but without the electrolytes and carbohydrates necessary to athletes.
- Sports drinks are not for children.
Not because they’re bad in small amounts, but because sports drinks are high in calories that most kids just don’t need. Unless a kid is exercising for more than two hours and is running the risk of getting seriously dehydrated, kids just do not need sports drinks. Sometimes sports drinks can be used to re-hydrate a child after a loss of fluids during sickness, if suggested by a doctor.
- Sports drinks DO NOT improve performance.
However, they DO prevent performance degradation that occurs from running out of carbohydrates and from dehydration. Just a 2-3% level of dehydration can cause as much as a 10% degrade in performance, so, indirectly, sports drinks can help maintain performance you’ve built through other training methods.
- The carbohydrates in sports drinks are important.
Sports drinks’ main purpose are to resupply the body with carbohydrates, which eventually get converted into glycogen and ATP(adenosine tri-phosphate), the currency of muscular activity.
- Sports drinks contain electrolytes that help replace those lost during heavy sweating.
Electrolytes are important because they’re what your cells use to carry electrical impulses (like nerve impulses and muscle contractions). Your body works extremely hard to keep these electrolyte concentrations in your blood constant, despite changes in your body. 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 consistent. To aid in this process, many sports drinks have sodium chloride or potassium chloride added to them.
If you only drink water, you dilute your sodium and potassium levels instead of replacing lost electrolytes.
One risk of drinking too much water without replacing electrolytes is hyponatremia, a metabolic condition where 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’s a very dangerous condition and one of the reasons why I feel sports drinks are so important. As long as you’re replacing electrolytes, your risk of hyponatremia is low.
What’s the Best Sports Drink for Runners?
So here’s the answer you’ve all been waiting for. (I hope you didn’t just skip ahead to this section though, 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 depend on several factors.
Here are some things that should influence your decision in finding the right sports drink for you
- Look for a mix of 5-8% carbohydrate solution.
Olympic athletes and professional runners often have their own custom sports drink mix to best match their nutrition needs, based on advanced lab testing. For the rest of us, most sports drinks with a 5-8% carbohydrate ratio is fine. Studies show that this is the most tolerable level for the digestive system and has the fastest rate of digestion. Note: Avoid juices, as they have a higher percentage of carbohydrates and can cause stomach distress.
- Look for a sports drink that your stomach can tolerate.
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 your body. This can be via natural foods (pretzels, cliff bars, bananas, etc.) gels, sport beans, electrolyte fizzes, or whatever else you can find. It does not have to be a sports drink. Sports drinks are just a form of convenience.
- Make sure there are carbohydrates in the sports drink.
“Diet” sports drinks do not provide any value other than electrolyte replacement and water. Ideally, you want the fuel (carbohydrates) as well.
- Try to find out what sports drink your goal race provides (if any), and train with that brand.
Many races will offer sports drinks to participants, so it may help to train with that particular type. However, keep in mind that many races have volunteers that inconsistently mix the drinks. Sometimes it’s too strong, sometimes it’s too weak. In the case of a sports drink being too strong, drink less and add water during your stop to dilute it. If it’s too weak, drink a little extra to boost the effect. 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’re part of your support team.
- Sports drinks ARE NOT the same as an energy drinks.
Energy drinks should NEVER NEVER EVER be used as part of a marathon training program or any other athletic training or sports activity. They are extremely high in caffeine and serve no valid nutritional purpose whatsoever. Also, in my opinion and based on what I’ve read, they 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 entirely.
When it comes to determining what’s the best sports drink for runners, experiment early on and fine tune your hydration and fueling plan based on what works for you. There’s very little consistency between runners – what works for one does not always work for the other. General guidelines can help get you started in the right direction, but, ultimately, you need to find what works best for you.
Visit our Facebook page to share and find helpful running tips and motivation to keep your head in the game.
Share RunBuzz running tips with your friends!
The following two tabs change content below.
Steve is the founder and head coach of RunBuzz.com. Steve is host of the RunBuzz podcast and founder of PaceBuilders
, a complete training program for runners. Steve is a RRCA / USA Track and Field Certified Running Coach.