It’s rare to see an ad for a sports drink that doesn’t show a sprinter dripping sweat, exhausted, reaching for a beverage, and for good reason. Electrolytes lost during intense exercise need to be replaced, which water alone won’t do, so athletes often turn to sports drinks to get their fix. But one of the questions we hear a lot is, which sports drinks are best for runners? The truth is, with so many brands vying for your attention (and hard-earned spending cash), there’s a lot of information to sort through. Here’s our take on what makes a sports drink the winning one for you.
It’s easy to ask yourself, are these drinks are all the same, or is there one particular brand or formula best suited for my training?
First, let’s make sure we’re working from a solid definition of what a sports drink is.
Sports drinks, like Gatorade, Powerade, and even Vitamin Water, are designed to be consumed during or after exercise to replace fluids lost due to physical activity. They’re mostly water, and contain a mixture of carbohydrates and electrolytes. As we’ll soon discuss, though, they’re not all created equal.
It should be noted that sports drinks are not the same as energy drinks, and they’re not intended to improve performance. Energy drinks contain caffeine and other stimulants, like taurine and guarana, which provide no nutritional value. We’re not doctors here, but it’s generally not a good idea to combine high-intensity endurance training and stimulants, especially ones that aren’t regulated by the FDA or any other governing body.
But sports drinks are very helpful when used correctly in training. A lot of runners skip them because they tend to be loaded with sugar, which makes them very high calorie, but you just need to know when and how to use them to make them work for you.
So, now that we know what a sports drink is and what exactly it does for us, we can take a look at a few things.
These beverages are intended to aid you when you’re expending energy, not when you’re lounging on a lazy Sunday. They’re a sneaky source of hidden calories for some runners, which could lead to weight gain because the very sugar that aids your muscles while you’re running is the same that converts to extra pounds if you’re not careful. But don’t worry; as long as you use them the way they’re intended — as part of your fueling routine when you’re training — you should be fine.
Olympic athletes and marathon runners often have their own custom sports drink to best match their performance needs. For the rest of us, a drink with a 5-8% ratio of carbs : water is fine! Studies show that this is the optimal ratio most tolerable level of carbs in a sports drink, and the ratio that is digested the fastest. Whatever brand and flavor you choose, do the math to make sure it checks out!
Not really! When it comes to selecting a brand of sports drink, go with your instincts. Gatorade isn’t necessarily better than Powerade, or Accelerade, etc., they just have different ratios of ingredients and flavors. Once you know which formula works best for you, you’re golden. Pick a brand or switch it up; your training won’t be affected.
Try a few brands until you know how your body will tolerate it. The last thing you want is to be 10 miles away from home looking for a bathroom because you tried a new flavor and it tore your stomach up. Try a new flavor or brand of drink on an easy day first!
Carbohydrates get converted into adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is the “currency” your muscles use to perform. Diet sports drinks — like G2, Gatorade’s answer to a lower-calorie sports drink option — don’t have the carbs you need for long training runs. It’s ideal to have the trifecta of water, electrolytes, and carbs for peak performance. The carbohydrates in these beverages are very important; don’t get caught up worrying about the sugar content — as long as you’re using it, you need it!
It’s ideal to get your body primed with the exact type of fuel you’ll be using the day of the race, but even if you do your research, just remember that things might not go as planned on race day. Volunteers trying to keep up with high demand might end up mixing the drinks inconsistently, resulting in stronger or weaker mixes than you used in training. Balance out your overall consumption by following your sports drink with more or less water, according to whether you think it’s weaker or stronger. Check out more race day tips here.
The companies that manufacture these drinks spend billions in advertising to make you believe you need fancy pre- and post-workout supplements, beverages, and so on. All you need is a convenient way to deliver electrolytes and carbs to your body, and these can come in the form of pretzels, Clif bars, bananas, gels, sport beans, — there are a multitude of sources that are a lot cheaper and more available than many of the products being marketed to you. Get to know what your body likes and use what is convenient.
…they do help prevent the degradation of performance that occurs from running out of carbohydrates and from dehydration. Just a 2-3% level of dehydration can cause a 10% degradation of performance so these beverages can help you maintain the level of performance you’ve achieved through training.
Sports drinks contain electrolytes that help replace those lost during heavy sweating. Electrolytes are important because your cells use them 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.
So, it’s not a matter of a brand of sports drink that is better, it comes down to the ratio of water : carbs that helps runners the most.
Arm yourself with this information to find the sports drink that’s just right for your body and your performance goals. Try them out and adjust as necessary — it’s that simple!
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