Nutrition

Sports Drinks! Do we need them?

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The term sports drink is probably a really bad description for a lot of very different drinks that people just put in a single category. When you look closer, they are so different that some really have nothing to do with sports at all. Let’s have a look at just a few of the popular ones to compare them and see what benefit they have to riding bikes.

We all see the pro’s drinking Redbull or Monster Energy drinks before a race. Sometimes it just might be product placement, but other times they swig it down and smile, and post on social media about having to have a Redbull before the race run. Maybe a downhill racer who is only going for 4 minutes might have some benefit from it, being that it is full of carbohydrates and in particular caffeine that will hit pretty quickly. But an XC racer who is about to ride flat out for maybe 90 minutes at a world championship wouldn’t consider it. Why? Because Redbull is full of caffeine and has no electrolytes and can dehydrate you. It isn’t a sports drink, it is essentially an energy drink which isn’t of any value to someone out for a day’s riding.

The old favourite Gatorade. It was one of the first ‘sports drinks’ and actually has beneficial effects on the body as it has electrolytes, potassium, magnesium and of course carbohydrates as well as other good ingredients. But what really matters is when you drink it. For a 30 minute general ride there is no need for those additional electrolytes or calories. Gatorade and drinks like it were really meant for intense physical activity lasting more than 1 hour on average. They do a good job of replacing what is lost during more intense exercise. Some people say they have too much sugar, but if you are doing intense exercise, you burn more than you drink down. Also, the flavour helps to make you drink more. Plain water gets a bit stale after a while, so the flavour and salt keep you drinking and that’s good to stop people dehydrating. Some people only drink water when they are thirsty, and by then, you are already dehydrated, so a drink that tastes nice keeps you drinking though the activity.

New age vitamin waters. These are more for general day to day drinking than for sports. They are usually just a lightly flavoured water and have some added vitamins and minerals to help towards your diet. They aren’t going to help beyond normal water, but they are cleverly put into sports branded bottles and market themselves as a sports drink. It just gives them more market to sell to. They are no better than water, so they won’t do you any harm, they just won’t do as good a job as an electrolyte drink.

Recovery drinks. These are the same as the Gatorade type drinks, but mainly have ingredients to support your muscles after they have done the hard work, and supply lots of different ingredients such as carbohydrates, protein, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Whilst there wouldn’t be a problem with taking them during an event, the ingredients are measured for a different purpose and sometimes don’t sit well in your stomach.

I have always used ‘sports drinks’ throughout my sporting life, both in athletics and riding bikes. I was lucky to have good coaches who understood the differences between lots of drinks and could cut through all the marketing to make sure I used the right drinks for the right reasons. I have tried lots of drinks and found that SIS is my drink of choice because it doesn’t make me feel sick during exercise. A lot of drinks look the same, and sometimes taste pretty similar, but the concentration of ingredients is very different. They may have the same purpose, but how they actually work in your digestive system can be very different. It is a trial and error process to find the right combinations.

For those who swear by water alone, that is fine. Water alone will not harm you, but as the exercise length increases, your levels of energy generally decreases, and with it your level of concentration, muscle response and visual acuity. You will fatigue and slow down. In extreme heat, these things will happen quicker.

The good news is that clinical trials show that the use of an appropriate sports drink such as SIS, NUUN, GU or similar will slow these negative effects of exercise fatigue and dehydration, and actually increase your initial performance. These drinks in pre-bottled form can be expensive, but if you buy them in powered form they are very cost effective and with so many options, you are sure to find one that suits. For the general rider on the weekend, it might be unnecessary, but for those competing at any level, the benefits are proven, and any legal advantage is worth the minimal cost and effort.

By Sam Luff – Pushys Sponsored Athlete

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