Race season is right around the corner and hydration is key!
We want to help you pick out the right sports drink to help you crush your races this season.
There are SO many options for hydration products that it can become overwhelming. Carbs? No carbs? A little sodium? Lots of sodium? Sports drink? Electrolytes? In this month’s blog, we are going to break it all down for you!
What’s the difference between sports drinks and electrolytes for hydration?
Before we break down the scenarios, it’s important to understand the difference between sports drinks and electrolytes. All sports drinks contain electrolytes, however, not all electrolyte drinks are sports drinks. The difference lies in the carbohydrate content.
Sports drinks are composed of sodium and potassium, which are electrolytes, PLUS carbohydrates in the form of sugars, like glucose (among others), which is the body’s preferred source of energy during exercise. The purpose of the formulation of a sports drink is to provide carbohydrates as a source of fuel for use during exercise, as well as to stimulate quick absorption of fluids. This allows the body to speed rehydration and promote recovery after exercise. (Galaz, 2019)
Electrolytes, on the other hand, are composed of greater quantities and diversity of minerals, such as sodium, potassium, magnesium, and calcium without containing carbohydrates (or containing trace amounts of carbohydrates). The role of electrolytes in the body is vitally important, as they contribute to fluid regulation, maintenance of blood pressure, and muscle contractility. When you become dehydrated via sweat loss, these mineral levels can become unbalanced, which can lead to cramping, nausea, headache, weakness and dizziness. (Cleveland Clinic, 2021)
Electrolyte imbalances are especially common during times of temperature extremes, such as during very cold or very hot weather, especially if you have trained through the cold and then experience an unseasonably warm race day. We have an entire blog post discussing proper utilization of electrolytes during cold weather training, which you can check out here.
How to choose the RIGHT drink for ultimate hydration
So, now that we have a better grasp on what the difference between sports drinks and electrolyte drinks are, how do we use that information to make choices that will support our bodies through training and provide what we need to recover? First, you should consider these three questions:
- How long am I training for?
- Am I a heavy sweater?
- What works for my GI system?
1. How long am I training for?
For less than 60 minutes of training/racing, you don’t necessarily need to rely on drinks that contain carbohydrates. In this situation, an electrolyte could work well. Our team has a list of favorites including Nuun (if you can get your hands on the seasonal Kona Cola flavor, let’s just say buy it all!), Propel, Liquid IV, and LMNT. All of these options will give you that mineral replenishment that you need to rehydrate.
If you are training/racing for longer than 60 minutes, you are going to want to choose a sports drink, as you will be tapping into your glycogen stores in order to power your effort over extended time. If you aren’t using a sports drink, it can be difficult to reach your carb goals per hour to maintain energy & endurance without causing GI distress. Skratch and Tailwind are some of our team favorites for sports drinks. However, here is where you may wish to test out what will be provided on course of your event if you don’t plan to carry your own liquids on the course. If you don’t tolerate the provided brand or flavor of sports drink, you’re already ahead of the game in planning to find an option that works for you and practice carrying your own sports drinks.
2. Am I a heavy sweater?
Sweat loss can absolutely deplete your hydration and electrolytes, however the rate and composition of sweat is highly individual. (Baker, 2017) In order to plan your fluid replacement strategy, it’s important to consider your personal sweat style. Since most recreational athletes aren’t undergoing sweat testing, there are some simple ways you can assess this:
Do you pour sweat when you train?
Do you have a white gritty or sandy residue around your hairline or arms or legs after training?
Do you notice you are unusually thirsty despite drinking a lot of fluids?
If you answered yes to any of those questions, you may be a heavy sweater! If this is the case, you may want to look at a sports drink or electrolyte (again, depending on the amount of time you will be training) that has a higher electrolyte content. Electrolytes are essential in the hydration process, they help open “more doors” into your cell to hydrate quicker than water alone (Choi, et. al., 2021).
Fun fact? Carbs ALSO open another door for quicker hydration (Leiper, 1998). The science of hydration is dense, and while we love to geek out, the simple fact is, solutions enriched with electrolytes and/or carbohydrates utilize the tonicity of your body’s fluids and cellular pathways to improve rehydration more effectively than water alone.
3. What works for my GI system?
You’ve heard “never try anything new on race day” and this is no exception. There is literally no worse feeling than being out on the course and experiencing gastric distress. You spend so many hours training for events, and training your guts should be a part of that- please don’t leave it up to chance on event day! We recommend starting to test your in-race fuel and hydration at least 2-3 months out from your event. Practicing your hydration products allows you to be sure your GI system tolerates them. (One of our favorite hacks is to check the race website and find out what sports drinks they provide on course and giving those a trial run in training).
This will also give you some practice with increasing your hourly fluid rate. Check out our blog post on nailing your race day nutrition here. The #1 reason that people are unsuccessful in their endurance event is that they have a poor fueling and hydration plan. Don’t let that be you! Getting curious about what works for your body well in advance will help you to solidify strategies and products that will help you get to that finish line, no matter the event.
Baker, L. B. (2017). Sweating rate and sweat sodium concentration in athletes: A review of methodology and intra/interindividual variability. Sports Medicine, 47(S1), 111–128. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-017-0691-5
Choi, D.-H., Cho, J.-Y., Koo, J.-H., & Kim, T.-K. (2021). Effects of electrolyte supplements on body water homeostasis and exercise performance during exhaustive exercise. Applied Sciences, 11(19), 9093. https://doi.org/10.3390/app11199093
Cleveland Clinic. (2022, October 25). Electrolyte drinks: Beneficial or not? Cleveland Clinic. Retrieved from https://health.clevelandclinic.org/electrolyte-drinks-beneficial-or-not/
Galaz, G. A. (2019). An overview on the history of sports nutrition beverages. Nutrition and Enhanced Sports Performance, 231–237. https://doi.org/10.1016/b978-0-12-813922-6.00019-9
Leiper, J. (1998). Intestinal water absorption – implications for the formulation of Rehydration Solutions. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 19(S 2). https://doi.org/10.1055/s-2007-971977