Many athletes choose to mix drinks to fuel their daily workouts or simply to add flavor to their water. While this may seem like a simple and easy option, combining electrolytes, calories, and water in one package, it’s actually much more complicated.
The decision to bottle a sports drink mix or drink only plain water is more complicated than grabbing a gel or bar to fuel your body and should be carefully considered to determine what is right for your training needs.
If this is your first time using a mixed drink, dilute it with water. This will allow your gut to slowly get used to drinking carbohydrates and sodium, reducing the chance of stomach upset. A solution with 6-8% carbohydrates is best tolerated. If you’re a cyclist who carries bottles for one ride, using one for sports drinks and one for water is a best practice. And, if you’re training for longer than 90 minutes, use a mixture that provides half your needs and the other half from food.
Finally, it’s important to know your sweat rate, sodium needs, and calorie needs for each individual training session – based on duration, temperature, intensity, and ease of refueling – to make the best refueling and hydration decisions.
There are several situations where it’s a good idea to add a mixed drink to your bottle or use a pre-made sports drink. First – and most obviously – it’s convenient. It creates an “all-in-one” strategy where you can hydrate, get calories, and replenish electrolytes in an easily consumed, portable form. Keeping the mix in a bottle is also a great reminder as it improves taste, which is helpful for those who struggle to drink enough water while training. This is great for those who find it difficult to carry extra fuel during long training sessions.
Secondly, for short training sessions, consuming extra calories is not necessary and a few sips of sports drink is enough to boost your energy levels. Carbohydrate gargling – gargling with a high-carbohydrate drink – can give you the edge you need. Low-carb blends that rely on electrolytes can help replace sweat and lost nutrients without adding unnecessary carbohydrates.
Third, athletes with sensitive stomachs or those new to calorie training may find it easier to get their energy needs from a drink than from digesting more solid food.
Finally, bottling is also beneficial for intense technical training or competition, where grabbing, unwrapping and chewing can be difficult and even dangerous. Being able to sip from a bottle or hydration pack using a straw requires less effort and less attention to the motor task at hand.
Attempting to meet energy and hydration needs through beverages can become more complicated because hydration and energy needs vary independently of each other. For example, during the summer months, caloric intake may generally remain stable; most training sessions are 45-60 grams of carbohydrates per hour, while hydration needs increase relative to temperature and humidity. Relying on liquid fuels for hydration and calories may leave you overfueled and underhydrated, or underfueled and overhydrated – a difficult balance to get right.
Sipping a low to medium carbohydrate blend can be a great way to spread out your energy intake between gels or solid food intake. This may help to keep energy levels consistent and high throughout the effort. It is vital to note that this only works if you are using the blend as a supplement to other sources of nutrition and energy; the blend alone may not be able to meet your total energy needs. Each sip may only provide you with 5-10 calories per sip, which won’t help you surge or prevent a plunge. You wouldn’t just lick a sports chew as if that provided enough fuel, yet that’s basically what you get for drinking calories one sip at a time.
It’s important to choose the right sports drink for you. In addition to calories, carbohydrates, and hydration, sports drinks or blends also contain electrolytes. These minerals, primarily sodium lost in sweat, are essential for athletes. Losing too much sodium during exercise can lead to swelling, stomach upset, cramping and confusion. The amount of sodium required by different athletes varies greatly, with many needing 4-6 grams/day, while the average person needs 1.5-2 grams/day. And the sodium content of blends varies widely, with some containing almost no sodium, while others require the amount needed for heavy, salty sweaters. Keep in mind that not all blends are the same and that blends vary greatly from brand to brand. Make sure you know what your blend offers and whether it is suitable for your needs in that particular session.
If this all sounds like a lot to consider when all you want is to shake up a bottle and head to the gym, it doesn’t have to be so complicated.
For training under an hour, aim to drink only water or a light mixed drink that contains more electrolytes and fewer carbohydrates. For training greater than two hours, use a moderate mixed drink in conjunction with other fuel sources. Ultimately, work to understand your needs, sweat rate, sodium loss, and calorie requirements for each training session and match those needs with appropriate fueling and hydration strategies. Having a variety of blended drinks with different calorie and sodium content to choose from is your best bet.