Words by Chloe Hay

They sponsor the Olympic Games, they’re advertised on the side of buses and the supermarket shelves are full of them – but who really needs sports drinks? Only elite athletes? Or you and me? Well, whether you need a sports drink or would be better off sticking to good old tap water really depends on how long you’re riding for and how much you’re sweating.

The sports drinks industry is a multi-million-pound business, but it’s certainly not just athletes who are drinking them. According to a 2015 report, we consume 170 million litres of sports drinks a year in the UK (and another 600 million energy drinks a year), and as you can pick up a sports drink as part of a lunchtime meal deal, it’s hardly likely that these are all drunk during seriously sweaty training sessions.

And really, that is the only time they should be consumed. Despite a lot of mixed opinions concerning the need for sports drinks amongst amateur athletes, experts agree that for rides of 60 minutes or less, a bottle of water is perfectly fine.

So when are sports drinks good?

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If you're going out for a ride of more than 60 minutes, are cycling in excessive heat or are competing in a long distance race, you may want to consider a sports drink to help you replace electrolytes as well as lost water.

After an hour’s cycling, it’s recommended to take in 30-60g of carbohydrates every sixty minutes to help fuel your performance. You could do this by snacking on a banana, dried fruit or energy gels, or by sipping on a sports drink.

An average litre bottle of sports drink will contain about 60g carbohydrates in the form of simple sugars as well as water and electrolytes – the perfect combination to hydrate you through periods of exertion and sweat – and so if sipped over a period of 1-2 hours, will provide you with all the carbohydrates you need to keep going.

What if I want to avoid refined sugars?

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Most commercially available sports drinks are made up of a mix of simple sugars, which don’t always react well with everyone – especially if you’re not used to consuming refined sugars or artificial flavourings. Therefore, it’s always a good idea to trial run any new sports drinks you plan to use for long-distance cycles or competitive races, to stop you getting caught out with digestive problems half way into an all-day ride!

If you’re concerned about trying sports drinks, have digestive problems, or want to avoid refined sugars, you can easily make your own homemade version – that way you’ll know exactly what’s in it and keep tweaking the recipe until it’s right for you. Here are two super-easy recipes to get you started:

Basic recipe: Mix up 1 litre of squash (orange or lemon is best) and add to it a large pinch of good quality sea salt or pink Himalayan salt.

Even cleaner: Add the juice of 1 orange, 1 lime and 1 lemon to 1 litre of water. Stir in a large pinch of pink Himalayan salt.

How often do I need to drink during my ride?

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How much fluid we need to take in while cycling differs person to person depending on how much we sweat. To help quantify how much you should drink, British Cycling recommends conducting a ‘sweat test’.

To do this, you need to weigh yourself naked before going out for a ride. Then, cycle at your normal intensity for 60 minutes without drinking anything. Back home, take your kit off, towel dry any sweat away and weigh yourself again. Subtract your post-cycle weight from your pre-cycle weight – the difference will equate to the amount of fluid lost in millimetres.

So, for example, if you’re 1kg lighter after your ride, you will have lost 1 litre of water and you know to try and drink 1 litre of fluid for every hour of cycling – preferably spread out evenly over the hour, so around 250ml every 15 minutes. To make this more accurate, you could carry the test out on several occasions and work out your mean water loss.

Is it possible to drink too much?

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Whether you’re drinking water or sports drinks, it is possible to overdo it and hyponatremia (low blood salt concentrations) is actually a more common cause of death in athletes than dehydration.

To make sure you’re not over-drinking, sip slowly and consistently throughout your ride rather than downing litre after litre at rest stops, do the ‘sweat test’ to work out how much water you lose – and therefore need to replace – while cycling, and switch to a sports drink after an hour pedalling as the addition of electrolytes will help prevent you from drinking too much fluid.

What if I’m going for a short ride but don’t fancy water?

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Sometimes we want something a bit more exciting than tap water, and when we’re exercising we deserve it, right? When you feel like this, go for coconut water. It’s just as hydrating as regular water and comes with added nutrients too, just be sure to choose a brand that doesn’t contain sulphites.

In a nutshell...

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Sports drinks do have their place in the cycling world, but they are over-consumed. If you’re cycling for less than one hour, then stick to regular water. For longer rides, go for a sports drink but consider making your own to avoid unwanted refined sugars and artificial flavourings and additives.

And remember, everyone’s different – work out your fluid-loss rate and drink sensibly to reflect that. Accidentally found yourself on a longer ride than you intended and don’t have a sports drink to hand? Drink water and snack on something sweet and something salty – it will do the job.