Surely sports drinks use more jargon than any other fitness product? Between microwhats and hydrowhoknows, it's easy to become totally perplexed and overwhelmed by the world of athletic hydration. Is there really a difference between all the types? Trying to suss out what is best for your needs can make you feel like you're drowning in a sea of gobbledygook. Let's try and get to the bottom of things.
First of all, lots of sports drinks you see in your corner shop do have incredibly similar make-ups to expensive, athletic nutrition products. So we've aimed here to give you an idea of the ingredients in each kind of drink, with some examples of drinks in that category, so you know what it is you're looking at.
The three different kinds of sports drink you can get are isotonic, hypotonic and hypertonic (also loosely known as energy, hydration and recovery products).
The most popular of all the, er, 'tonics', isotonic drinks (or energy drinks) have a similar concentration of dissolved particles to the body's own fluids. This means that the amount carbohydrates in these drinks – in the form of glucose, sucrose or fructose – will be mixed with the fluid at a ratio similar to a biological one.
Therefore isotonic drinks are easily absorbed, replacing fluids and giving a carbohydrate boost relatively quickly. The depletion of muscle carbohydrates, along with dehydration, is the primary source of fatigue when exercising.
Most will be mixed at a concentration of six to eight percent. This is because research consistently finds that glucose polymer drinks (aka sports drinks) mixed to a 6-8% solution are optimal in terms of absorption of energy and fluid from the drink.
It's possible to make your own budget beverage by mixing squash with water and a pinch of salt.
The only problem is that more glucose can effect the 'emptying time' from the stomach to the small intestine, causing gastrointestinal symptoms. If you have problems with stomach cramps, nausea, flatulence or indigestion on the bike, you might want to consider a lower concentration of sports drink (see hypotonic drinks below). Fructose-based drinks have also been implicated in gastrointestinal issues, so avoid those if you are easily irritated.
Also remember that consuming caffeine effects your absorption of carbohydrates too.
Riding for over an hour? You'll want to consume 30-60g of carbohydrate an hour to maintain optimum pace and stave off fatigue. You can, of course, find this carbohydrate from real foods if you prefer, and it's possible to make your own budget beverage by mixing squash with water and a pinch of salt.
What about these 2:1 drinks?
An excellent question. The isotonic bracket also includes varieties of 2:1 sports drinks. 2:1 is the ratio of glucose to fructose in the drink (with added electrolytes, of course).
These drinks aim to up the rate of your carb absorption: it's all well and good taking in loads of carbohydrates but if your body can only manage to process 60g per hour, an extra 30g won't make any difference to performance.
Some research shows that the magic 2:1 ratio enables you to absorb more carbs, more quickly – up to 90g in an hour. There's a bit of disagreement as to whether this is actually more than what is optimum for performance benefits, but research seems to show that these 2:1 drinks do make a difference for endurance athletes.
Hypotonic drinks (or hydration drinks) are mixed with a very low concentration of particles so they are absorbed super fast. They help sort out the problem of fatigue by rehydrating fast, without a bucket-load of carbohydrates. They are favoured by athletes like gymnasts and jockeys.
They simply contain water and electrolytes – i.e sodium or potassium – to replace the salts and fluids you lose during exercise when you sweat (some contain a very low dose of carbohydrate too). If you get too dehydrated it lead to an increased heart rate, slower reaction times and generally decreased performance levels.
When riding for under an hour, these products aren't necessary but the salt and delicious flavourings in them do stimulate your thirst, making you more likely to drink an appropriate amount. Aim for about 125ml (a small glass of water) every 15 minutes.
Riding for a longer period? Time to reach for the isotonics.
These tend to be used as recovery drinks as they have a considerably higher concentration of carbohydrate (usually around 10%). They are used to supplement your daily carb intake, and sometimes are used by ultra-distance athletes but only in conjunction with hypotonic drinks. They help the body top up the muscle glycogen stores after a workout.
These drinks are not suitable during normal exercise because they draw water into the intestine, meaning they are absorbed very slowly.
Many specially formulated recovery drinks also include plenty of protein (soy, whey or casein) for post-workout muscle recovery in addition to the replenishment of carbohydrate stores.
Carbohydrate and protein at a 3:1 ratio is the best for your recovery period.