Sports drinks have been a topic of debate for years, and it turns out there's really no clear conclusion.
Sports drinks have been a topic of debate for years, and it turns out there's really no clear conclusion.

Everything You Need to Know About Sports Drinks

There's no magic potion, but if you perfectly pair your sports drink with your workout, you can boost your performance and recover more quickly

Sports drinks have been a topic of debate for years, and it turns out there's really no clear conclusion.

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When it comes to choosing sports drinks, the debate is hot and heavy. Options abound, from electrolyte-charged powders and tablets to bottled alternatives ranging from sugar-filled to calorie-free. Some fat-adapted athletes are even pouring MCT oil (made from medium-chain triglycerides or fat molecules) into water bottles and downing the stuff midrace to prompt their bodies to burn fat as fuel.

The stakes are high. Choose the wrong drink, and you could end up keeled over with a bout of GI distress or bonking with just a few miles left in your race.

What’s the right call? That really depends on the type of workout you’re doing and whether your drink is supposed to boost performance or just maintain hydration. We talked to experts to clear up the confusion and help you develop a bonkproof hydration strategy. Ultimately, you’ll need to listen closely to your body and experiment to find which flavor combos and methods work best. Use these guidelines as a starting point for your next endurance challenge.

Electrolyte-Only Mixes

What They Are: Electrolyte tablets, powders, or waters that contain minimal carbs and calories. Typically, these solutions contain only sodium, potassium, magnesium, and calcium, though some also contain caffeine.

When to Use Them: Take a few swigs during a lower-intensity workout of less than 90 minutes to keep your body primed for the duration of your effort. If the weather is exceptionally warm, up your intake to replenish the extra minerals you’re sweating out.

A Note of Caution: If your workout will last longer than 90 minutes, bring along other fuel that includes calories and macros, says Tara Whiton, an ultrarunner and PhD candidate in East Tennessee State University’s sport physiology and performance department. Whiton still uses electrolyte-only drinks to make sure she’s properly hydrated during big runs, but she gets her actual fuel from nonelectrolyte chews and gels that provide a hit of glucose. (Plus, they take Whiton’s mind off the physical act of running as she chews.)

Low-Carbohydrate Mixes

What They Are: A powder or tablet that dissolves in water and offers some fuel in the form of smaller amounts of carbohydrates. They’re meant to be paired with other forms of midrace nutrition.

When to Use Them: For efforts longer than 90 minutes, turn to these mixes as part of your overall fueling strategy. They’re perfect for those who need variety between liquid and solid nutrition options. OSMO, a California-based hydration beverage company, spearheads the school of thought that a lower-carb mix is ideal for moving fluids from the gut and into the bloodstream, allowing for quicker hydration and better nutrient absorption. “The typical sports drink has a carbohydrate concentration higher than what occurs naturally in blood, so the body’s physiological response is to pull water from the vascular system to dilute the substance,” explains Ben Capron, a spokesperson for OSMO. In other words, the company believes the average drink could dehydrate you. A solution like OSMO, however, which has just nine grams of carbohydrate per mix, more closely matches the carb concentration of blood, negating dehydration risk and possibly improving your system’s ability to digest the other fuel you’re using. Skratch Labs offers a similar powder that clocks in at 11 grams of carbs per serving.

A Note of Caution: Due to the low carb count of these mixes, you’ll need to take in fuel from other sources for longer or harder efforts. Alternate swigs of these solutions with bites of easy-to-digest foods throughout your race for max nutrition.

Low-Calorie Beverages

What They Are: These drinks, often marketed as flavored waters, replace glucose (read: fuel) with fake sugars to keep the calorie count low.

When to Use Them: Never. Athletes need carbs, so unless you’re getting your fuel from another source or only doing a short workout, these drinks are going to leave you feeling weak after 90 minutes. The takeaway? “I don’t think there’s a place for artificial sweeteners in endurance sports,” says Whiton.

A Note of Caution: “Artificial sweeteners can actually pull water into the gut,” says Curry. Hello, stomach upset.

Carbohydrate + Electrolyte Mixes

What They Are: You’ll find these on just about every marathon and triathlon course, and for good reason—you get fluids, carbs, and electrolytes in one convenient gulp. “They’re specially formulated to deliver 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrate per hour, which is what most people need,” Curry says.

When to Use Them: Choose a sports drink like this if you’ll be running or riding a near-marathon distance or time. Athletes vary in exactly how much fuel they need and how much their stomachs can tolerate, so Whiton advocates buying a powdered mix versus a premade beverage. That allows you to tailor the specific ratio to your personal needs by adjusting the mix-to-water ratio.

A Note of Caution: If you need to take in more than 60 grams of carbohydrate per hour for an especially hard or long effort, look for a drink that uses more than one type of sugar, ideally glucose or maltodextrin plus either fructose or sucrose, says Whiton. Your body is limited in how much glucose it can absorb and use at one time, but fructose relies on a slightly different transport system to move sugar from the gut and into the bloodstream, allowing you to circumvent the glucose roadblock. By consuming a glucose-fructose combo, some research shows that you use your fuel more efficiently.

Carbohydrates + Protein + Electrolytes Drinks

What They Are: Bottled drinks that replace some of the carbohydrate-derived calories in a typical sports drink with protein.

When to Use Them: When you’re going long and slow. Try these mixes when your endurance event will last longer or cover more distance than a marathon. Although protein may take too long to break down to shave seconds off your time, “there’s some evidence that ingesting branched-chain amino acids—the building blocks of protein—can help improve mental focus in long endurance events,” says Whiton. The other advantage of adding protein is that it may help with muscle repair once you finish. When you work out, about 15 percent of your energy comes from the nutrient, says Whiton. Usually that energy is derived from your body breaking down muscle—something no athlete wants. Whiton says if you add protein to your drink mix, you might be able to avert the breakdown of muscles—or at least spur on the rebuilding process afterward.

A Note of Caution: Protein is a slow-moving fuel. Adding too much could result in real gastric misery, so be sure to test your approach on easier efforts and start with small amounts before ramping up.