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There are now several distinct types of sports drinks available for athletes. Be sure to use the right product for your needs.
In the old days, sports drinks were sports drinks. Sure, there were many brands, but their formulas were very similar and each was marketed for general use before, during and after all types of exercise. Since the good old days, the sports drink market has become segmented into various categories. There are now several types of sports drinks formulated for different specific uses. Many endurance athletes have trouble keeping these categories straight and knowing what they should drink when. This short guide to sports drinks will help you.
Regular Sports Drinks
This category of sports drinks encompasses products that offer the traditional, basic formulation of water, 6 to 10 percent carbohydrate, and electrolyte minerals. Research has shown that regular sports drinks effectively limit dehydration, maintain blood glucose levels, and enhance performance in interval workouts and in workouts and races lasting longer than one hour.
Regular sports drinks are useful before exercise (to hydrate and increase blood glucose levels) and during exercise lasting 60 minutes of longer, especially in warm or hot weather. They may be inadequate to meet your body’s nutritional needs during multi-hour workouts and races, however. Also, they are not as effective as recovery sports drinks in promoting muscle recovery after exercise.
Gatorade – The original sports drink provides a conservative 14 g of carbs and 110 mg of sodium per 8-oz. serving.
PowerAde – Coca-Cola’s primary sports drink offering has more carbs (17 g) and less sodium (55 g) than its main competitor, Gatorade.
PowerBar Endurance – PowerBar Endurance contains a special “C2 Max” blend of carbohydrates that has been proven to be more effective than single-carbohydrate sports drinks in peer-reviewed research.
Low-Calorie Sports Drinks
Low-calorie sports drinks such as Propel typically contain little or no carbohydrate and are sweetened with artificial flavorings. Most low-calorie sports drinks perform similarly to plain water. They hydrate effectively, but because of their minimal energy content they do not enhance endurance performance as well as regular sports drinks. However, some endurance athletes with sensitive stomachs are able to tolerate low-calorie sports drinks better than regular sports drinks. If you have trouble with regular sports drinks, use the strongest (i.e. the highest-carbohydrate) low-calorie sports drink that your body accepts, as there is a direct relationship between carbohydrate levels and performance in sports drinks (up to a limit of 8 to 10 percent).
While most low-calorie sports drinks are marketed to weight-conscious individuals, you should be aware that, realistically, the specific sports drink you use will have no effect on your weight as long as you use it properly (that is, only before and during exercise).
Accelerade Hydro – Research has shown that Accelerade Hydro, thanks to its 4:1 carb-protein ratio, is as effective as a regular sports drink with 30 percent fewer calories.
G2 – Gatorade’s low-calorie offering contains 25 calories per 8-oz serving while retaining the sodium content (110 mg) of the original Gatorade.
PowerAde Zero – Zero calories means zero energy, so don’t expect this product to perform any better than water, although you may find it tastes better.
Propel – Marketed as a “fitness water” rather than a sports drink, Propel contains 3 g of carbs per 8-ounce serving.
Enhanced Sports Drinks
A newer generation of sports drinks offers various extra ingredients that the regular sports drinks don’t have. These extras include vitamins, lactate buffering compounds, ergogenic ingredients such as citrulline malate, extra sodium, caffeine, and amino acids and protein.
Most of these added ingredients are worthless. For example, B vitamins are nice, but they do nothing to make a sports drink work better. Ergogenic ingredients including CoQ10 and beta-alanine may have their place as daily supplements, but they provide no immediate exercise performance benefit when included in sports drinks, and most of the sports drinks that contain them use very small amounts that wouldn’t have any physiological effect anyway.
The only sports drink ingredient extras worth considering are added sodium, caffeine, and protein or amino acids.
Accelerade – With its unique 4:1 carb-protein ratio, Accelerade is scientifically proven to muscle damage during exercise and thus accelerate recovery compared to carb-only sports drinks.
EFS – In addition to carbs and electrolytes, EFS sports drink by First Endurance contains the amino acids glutamine, leucine, isoleucine and valine.
Gatorade Endurance – Gatorade Endurance is Gatorade with extra sodium (200 mg per 8-oz serving).
Heed – Heed is an unusual sports drink that contains extra ingredients that are normally found in energy drinks and bodybuilding and diet supplements: carnosine, chromium picolinate and tyrosine.
Ultra-Endurance Sports Drinks
If you ever participate in an endurance event that is long enough to cause you to miss regular meals, such as a 24-hour mountain bike race, you may want to consider using a sports drink that is designed especially for use in such situations. These products are like crosses between regular sports drinks and meal replacement shakes, as they contain ingredients such as fats and vitamins that are not needed in regular sports drinks but are needed in multi-day hikes and other such events.
Because of the additional ingredients in them, ultra-endurance sports drinks are not as easily digested during high-intensity exercise as other sports drinks, so they may not be appropriate for some athletes in events such as Ironman triathlons, in which the exercise intensity can be relatively high.
CarboPro – CarboPro is like a cross between a sports drink and a gel. It’s essentially a super-concentrated carbohydrate syrup that provides a whopping 28.5 g or carbs in a 1-oz serving. Like an energy gel, it is meant to be consumed with water. A powdered drink mix version of the product is also now available.
Perpetuem – With 54 g of carbohydrate, 4.5 g of fat and 7 g of protein per serving, Perpetuem provides more energy and more balanced energy than regular sports drinks, making it closer to a meal replacement.
Recovery Sports Drinks
Formulated especially for use immediately after exercise, recovery sports drinks typically contain large amounts of carbohydrate (more than regular sports drinks have) for fast muscle refueling, amino acids and/or protein for muscle tissue repair, and electrolytes to facilitate rehydration. Research has shown that recovery sports drinks accelerate muscle recovery compared to regular sports drinks. But because they are much more calorically dense than regular sports drinks, recovery sports drinks generally should not be used during intense exercise, as they may cause stomach upset.
Endurox R4 – One of the first recovery sports drinks remains one of the most popular. It features the same patented 4:1 carb-protein ratio as its sister product, Accelerade.
GU Brew Recovery – GU’s recovery product features a mix of complex and simple carbs, whey protein isolate, amino acids and other good stuff.
PowerBar Recovery – PowerBar Recovery provides 20 g of carbs, 3 g of protein and 250 mg of sodium per serving.
Recoverite – Recoverite is Hammer Nutrition’s recovery offering. Like other Hammer products it contains chelated minerals and extra goodies such as carnosine and tyrosine.
Ultragen – No other recovery drink packs in as much nutrition (or calories) as Ultragen by First Endurance, which contains a massive 60 g of carbs and 20 g of protein per serving plus high amounts of amino acids, vitamins and minerals.